On the Wrong Track
A short story
It’s the rocking sensation, ceaseless, that wakes me. Groggy, I wonder if I’m still drunk. I shift my weight, trying to get comfortable enough to finish sleeping it off. The slip under my vintage dress sticks to my sweaty legs. I’m not in my own bed, not even undressed. Oh my God, did I pass out at my own party?
A clacketing, dull metallic roar surrounds me, coming from everywhere at once, including beneath my feet. The queasy rocking sensation, the sound — with an effort, I open my eyes, sticky with last night’s mascara.
“Miss, may I pour you some coffee?” I peer up to see a stately Black man in a uniform standing next to me, his feet braced for balance, holding a silver coffee pot. “Might make you feel better,” he says, his voice kind. “These early morning trips can be hard on a body.”
I stare wordlessly as he pours coffee into a china cup. It rests on a saucer atop a spotless white cloth laid over the table in front of the seat where I’m half-sprawled. Motion catches the corner of my eye and I turn my head to see trees and fields rushing past a large window.
I’m on a train.
Not a subway, not a commuter train. White smoke boils past the windows in drifts. A steam engine? Those were nearly all scrapped before the 1960s. Trains run on diesel or electricity now. I know this from my research for my dissertation.
The man with the coffee pot gives me a polite nod and moves on to another table. I blink at him as he goes, recognizing his uniform. It’s a perfect recreation of a World War I era Pullman porter’s livery.
And I’m in a vintage Pullman dining car, speeding along through countryside I don’t recognize. Not only that, but the dining car has other passengers, all wearing clothing that’s even more authentic than this outfit I put together for last night. For the party I threw to celebrate successfully defending my dissertation. It’s taken years, but finally I’m a bona fide historian with a Ph.D.
Is this train thing a gag? It’s way more elaborate than something Drew would dream up. He’s brilliant, but planning is not his strong suit. Hence me having to organize my own party. Would Dinusha, my advisor, arrange this for me? Is this some historical re-creation experience I’ve never heard of? None of those seems likely.
I glance around at the other passengers. Nobody looks familiar, and none of them smile at me or show any sign of knowing who I am. If they’re in on the joke, they’re playing it to the hilt.
My antique handbag is next to me on the seat. I rummage in it for my phone to send a group text to my party guest list and a private one to Drew, both of which will begin with “OK haha.” In the purse I find a lipstick, a compact, a handkerchief, a pair of gloves, none of which I recognize. There’s nothing else but an antique-looking packet of Wrigley chewing gum. No phone.
If this is a prank, I’m finding it less than amusing.
Sliding out of my seat, I approach a couple sitting at another booth, steadying myself by clutching onto the backs of seats as I go. This train is really moving. Fragments from my dissertation research surface unbidden. Steam locomotives like this one, popular in the early 20th Century, were capable of impressive speed.
“So, where are we going?” I say when I reach the couple. The woman peers curiously at me from under her broad hat. The man, stout and sporting a mustache straight out of a barbershop quartet, looks up from his newspaper and begins to rise from his seat. Proper behavior for the times. I decide to play along. “Please, don’t get up,” I say. “Would you be so kind as to tell me what train this is and where we’re headed?”
Maybe I’m laying it on a bit thick. The woman gives me a puzzled frown. Her husband, or so I assume, chuckles. “This here is the No. 1 train, my dear, and the tracks still go to Nashville, even if we are a half-hour late,” he says. He looks me up and down, not bothering to disguise his expression, mild lust combined with amusement. He picks up his paper, dismissing me, and takes a slurp of his coffee.
“Nashville?” I ask. “As in, Tennessee?”
Drew and I share an apartment in west L.A., commuting distance to our two universities. That’s where we held the party, and it went on past 1 AM, which I know because I was still awake then. We’re not all that far from the airport, but there’s no way that anyone could get me, passed-out drunk, to somewhere in the middle of Tennessee in this amount of time.
“Not aware of any other Nashville,” says the man, his smile strained. “So yes, that would be the one.” He flicks his paper, a signal that he’s done with this conversation.
I notice the railroad logo on his coffee cup, NC&StL. Another detail from my dissertation surfaces. The Nashville, Chattanooga and St. Louis Railway, also known as the Dixie Line. It hasn’t been in operation since 1957.
“Are you quite all right, dear?” It’s the woman speaking to me, in a tone that suggests she’d prefer I take whatever’s wrong with me elsewhere. I don’t answer her, because now I’m staring at the date on her husband’s newspaper.
July 9, 1918.
My breath stops. My head feels light, oddly buoyant, as though it might detach from my body and float off like a balloon.
I devoted an entire chapter to this date. The news media of the time were preoccupied with the war, so it got little attention for such a momentous event, making it ideal material to flesh out my dissertation. It’s the date of the worst head-on railway disaster in American history, the Great Train Wreck of 1918. Two passenger trains, pulled by 80-ton steam engines, coming from opposite directions along a single track and both going over 50mph, plowed into each other. Over a hundred people were killed, more than 170 injured.
They were both from the NC&StL. Both Dixie Line trains.
“What time is it?” I shout, looking frantically past the couple, through the nearest window. Morning light suffuses the cornfields that pass in a blur, brightening as the sun ascends. We’re traveling east.
This isn’t a prank or a joke. I can’t explain how, but I’m on the No. 1 train headed from Union Station in Memphis to Nashville. And at 7:20 AM, on the stretch known as Dutchman’s Curve, this train and the No. 4 from Nashville are going to collide.
“Just before seven o’clock, miss.” The kindly Pullman porter reappears at my elbow. “How about I help you to your seat,” he says as he steers me toward my booth.
“Seven?” Panic shrills through my throat, amplifying my voice. “Shit!”
“My word!” huffs the man’s wife, and there is a clatter of saucers and cutlery as other passengers look up in alarm. “Harrison, do something!”
“That is quite enough, young lady.” Her husband stands, his barbershop mustache quivering with indignation. “George, find her somewhere else to sit. She’s disturbing everyone.”
The porter nods gravely, his grip on my elbow tightening slightly. “You best come along with me, miss,” he says in my ear as he guides me toward the door to the next car.
“Wait!” I yell. “You have to stop this train! We’re going to crash!”
A small girl at one of the tables whimpers and then wails. Her mother tries to shush her, while at the same time glaring at me.
“Get here out of here, George!” roars Harrison, his face beet red above his mustache.
“His name’s not George, you racist jerk,” I say as the porter hustles me into the passageway between cars. “It’s not George, is it?” I ask him as we step across the gap between cars.
“George” is what white passengers of this era generally called train porters, who were all Black, after George Pullman, the 19th Century industrialist who innovated train coach design. Referring to train porters as “George” is a noxious holdover from when enslaved people were called by their masters’ names.
The porter, his smile faded, shakes his head but says nothing as we enter the next car. This one has no tables, only bench seats crowded with passengers, nearly all of them Black, jostling patiently with the motion of the train.
Unlike the Pullman car, this one is built of wood. That’s why it will accordion in the coming crash, turning into burning kindling. So will all the wooden passenger cars, crowded primarily with Black men and families. The DuPont gunpowder plant in Old Hickory is practically pleading for workers, and these people believe they are heading toward a decent-paying job that contributes to the war effort.
What they’re heading for is sudden death. Or worse, an agonizing, crushing injury that will kill them hours or days later.
And I’m right here with them, hurtling toward doom.
I twist away from the porter. “Stop!” I scream. “Stop this train! Or divert it to the other track, before we get to Dutchman’s Curve, for God’s sake.” As freaked out as I am, I’m aware of the people around me, wide-eyed children, frowning adults.
“Sir,” says the porter, acknowledging a man who lumbers toward us. This man is burly, white, with a mouth set grimly beneath his walrus mustache. He glares at me as he shoulders past the porter.
His arm reaches toward me, a commanding gesture. “Calm down, now, miss,” he says, as he literally takes me in hand.
I’m about to pull away, but I notice his uniform. He’s the conductor. “Listen to me, please,” I say, lowering my voice to an urgent whisper as he steers me toward the front of the train. “We’re still on the double track, right? You have to get off this line before Dutchman’s Curve. The No. 4 train will be heading right for us. Tell the engineer!”
“The No. 4 should have passed us already,” he says, “My men know what they’re doing, and they know the train schedules a fair sight better than you, young lady. How about you settle down, stop upsetting the other passengers, and leave running the train to me?”
He continues muscling me along the aisle, checking his pocket watch as he goes. I catch a glimpse of it. 7:05. Less than 15 minutes until we meet the No. 4 head-on.
I recall more of my research. There was a cascade of human error that led to the disaster, including the conductor leaving unclear instructions to his crew about looking out for the westbound train while he checked to make sure all the passengers had paid their fares.
“How about you run the damn train, then,” I say, “instead of collecting tickets?”
He stops, red-faced, wrenching me around to face him. “Listen here, girlie,” he snarls, “I ain’t got time for this nonsense —”
“You sure as hell don’t,” I spit back, more details of my dissertation coming into vivid focus. “Your crew’s not doing their job, the No. 4 is late too, and if we pass the Shop’s Junction tower before you divert to the other track, that’s it. We’ll be on a single track with another 80-ton engine coming right at us!” I’m screaming into his face now, yet I can see he’s balling his fists in fury.
But he’s let go of me.
I make a run for it.
Maybe if I can get to the engine compartment, I can talk some sense into the engineers. But I stagger; my button-up boots were not built for running, especially on a rocking wooden floor. A heel slides, my left ankle twists, and I pitch forward, cracking my head against the back of a bench seat. Nearby passengers exclaim in alarm. Stars dance in front of my eyes.
The conductor hauls me to my feet, sees I’m conscious, and plunks me down in an empty space at the very front of the car. His face is no longer scarlet, but he’s still breathing heavily. “How about you show me your ticket, young lady?” he demands.
Dazed from the fall, I reach for my handbag and realize I’ve dropped it somewhere. Not only that, but among its contents I didn’t spot anything like tickets or travel documents. Or money, for that matter.
“I don’t have a ticket,” I say weakly.
“Ha!” barks the conductor. “You’ll find the Dixie Line doesn’t look kindly on freeloaders.”
Lucidity returns in a flash. “That’s it!” I cry.
The conductor frowns in confusion.
“I don’t have a ticket! I’m a freeloader, a lawbreaker, a thief. You’ve got to stop, right now. Put me off this train!” A spark of hope spirals upward from my chest to my brain. I watch as the conductor considers this idea.
But his eyes narrow, and my hope turns to ash. “I don’t know what your game is, missy, but we’re late enough as it is. We’ll let the authorities in Nashville deal with you.” He nods his head at the wisdom of his plan. “I’ll have my men wire ahead, and there’ll be policemen waiting for you. Bet you didn’t think of that, did you?”
I don’t answer. I slump against the grimy window, watching in despair as the train breezes past an interlocking tower. Shop’s Junction. The double track becomes a single set of rails. We’ve passed the point of no return. The scraggly woods on either side of the tracks close in, just like our fate.
I heave a shuddering sigh and give way to tears.
“You brought this trouble on yourself, girlie.” The conductor’s voice rumbles with patriarchal melancholy. “Now, you just sit there and don’t make any more fuss, and maybe I can have a word with the boys in Nashville. But don’t you move, you hear me?” He gives me one last frown and moves off toward the engine car.
I let the motion of the train bounce my head dejectedly against the window. The discomfort keeps me just this side of full-blown panic. I have to think.
If I could only call Drew. Not to say goodbye — I can’t even go there yet — but because he might have an explanation. I’m the historian, but his field is quantum physics. He teases me about having a morbid obsession with past calamities, and I tease him about believing in things nobody understands, like string theory and the multiverse. He and his astrophysicist friend Celia have this running argument that I’ve had to listen to more than once over drinks. Drew thinks it would be possible to travel into the past since it’s already happened and has thus created a vibrational pattern, or something like that — I’m rarely sober when they get into these discussions. Celia basically says that since the past pattern is set, you can only travel into the future.
Tears roll down my face. Babe, I want to tell him, you were right. Celia owes you the next round. And the next, and the next, I think. I wonder if Drew and Celia will end up together once I’m a bloody slick on a railroad track, 104 years in the past. Or maybe it’s already too late.
At that thought, fear jerks at my rib cage and I sit up straight. The other passengers are busy looking anywhere but at me. I wipe my face, turn in my seat, and clear my throat to get the attention of the man sitting behind me. “Excuse me,” I say. “Do you have the time?”
The man, Black with grizzled hair and a lined face, regards me gravely from beneath a bowler hat. He reaches into his vest and retrieves a pocket watch that lacks a chain. “Looks like it’s just about 7:10, maybe 7:12,” he says politely. Then he replaces the watch, folds his arms, and closes his eyes as though embarking on a nap. Clearly, he has no interest in further conversation with a hysterical freeloader.
I have eight, maybe ten minutes left. I’m in a wooden passenger car, the one closest to the engine. Nobody in this car survives the crash. Very few people in any of the wooden cars do, one reason the railroads will retire this style of carriage in favor of steel passenger cars in response to this disaster. The best I can hope for is a quick death, a brief shock of pain, and then nothing.
But a thought penetrates my fog of despair. There were survivors. Not everyone died, and some even escaped uninjured. They were nearly all in the back of the train, in one of the steel Pullman cars, which not only withstood the immediate impact but were sturdy enough to avoid total collapse.
I jerk out of my seat and stand in the aisle, testing my sore ankle. If I hurry, I might be able to get to the last car before the No. 4 slams into us. Maybe the impact of the crash will send me back to my own time, my own place. I have a life, a brand-new doctorate, a partner who loves me, a future I’ve worked hard for. I can’t share these people's doom.
“Miss, I believe the conductor asked you to stay put,” says a worn-down-looking woman as I pass her. “We don’t need any more trouble, is all.” Exhausted children, three of them spanning maybe seven years, slump or fidget on the bench seat next to her, while an infant on her lap regards me with a solemn stare.
“Sorry, but I have to get to the back,” I say. “If I can’t get off this train.”
The woman lowers her brows and looks away, but the baby locks eyes with me. Everything, the rattling of the train, the coughing and stirring of the people in the seats, the dust motes swirling in the patches of morning sun, seems to pause, to hold its breath.
Then the baby’s face splits in a wide, toothless smile. She giggles at me. The bows on her braids bounce as she laughs.
My heart swells and breaks.
How is my life worth any more than hers? Or the lives of any of these people? That mother, the care she’s taken with those braids and bows. How much she has invested in her children’s futures.
I can’t haul them all to the back of the train. They probably wouldn’t be allowed in the Pullman cars anyway.
I’m the only one aboard who knows what’s going to happen. There must be a reason for that. Why else would I be here? Me, of all people, someone who has studied this exact event.
Dutchman’s Curve still lies ahead. There are only minutes until we reach it. Just long enough to pull the train to a halt and send a signal to the oncoming train, if somebody acts fast enough.
What can I possibly do to make the engineers pull the brakes? They’re not going to listen to me, that much is clear. And that conductor isn’t about to let me into the engine compartment.
Swearing in frustration, I limp back to my seat and kneel on it, staring out the window as the countryside whips by in a blur. If only I could get off this train, make it stop.
With the sudden weight of clarity, I know what to do.
I twist the latches on the window next to my seat and wrench it open as far as it will go. The sudden blast of air and noise drown out the protests of the passengers in the seats behind me as dust and soot blow into their faces.
The dignified man with the bowler hat reaches out to me with a restraining arm. “Miss, you don’t want to be doing that, now,” he says as he struggles to a standing position.
Opposite him and down one row is the woman with the baby, sheltering the tiny girl’s face from the debris blowing into the compartment. Good. The baby doesn’t need to see this. The grownups do, though, so they’ll alert the crew.
The train will stop. It’ll have to, and that should be enough to reduce the casualties. If the No. 4 gets word quickly enough, the collision might even be avoided altogether.
What will happen to me, I can only guess. Maybe I’ll get bounced back to a costume party in West L.A. in 2022. More likely, I’ll be dragged under the wheels and turned to pulp.
I take one last look at the baby and her siblings before I kick my legs behind me, through the open window, steadying myself with my arms against the bench seat. Good thing I’ve kept up my yoga practice.
Gasps and screams erupt in the car. My head, shoulders, and arms are still inside the compartment but the rest of me now hangs outside, twisting and battering against the side of the train. It’s all I can do to hang on. The full horror of what I’m doing crackles through me like electricity.
Hesitating, I look at the shocked faces, the figures coming toward me, desperate to reach me before it’s too late.
Bless these people, who have no idea what’s in store for them, afraid for me. Willing to risk getting hurt to rescue me.
“Take care of each other,” I say, clinging with the last of my strength to the edge of the window. “I love you.”
And then I let go.
About the Creator
Jan M Flynn
I write speculative short fiction, historical novels, upper-middle grade fantasy: pretty much whatever stalks me until I write it. Represented by Helen Adams of Zimmermann Literary Agency, NYC. Words fueled by coffee, mellowed by wine.
Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!
Original narrative & well developed characters
Zero grammar & spelling mistakes
Easy to read and follow
Well-structured & engaging content
Compelling and original writing
Creative use of language & vocab
Heartfelt and relatable
The story invoked strong personal emotions
Expert insights and opinions
Arguments were carefully researched and presented
On-point and relevant
Writing reflected the title & theme
Jan, girl. You are a MASTER storyteller. I was caught up in the tale from the beginning. It is more than WOW. I wanted her to live at the end…who knows maybe..(says Pollyanna) but great way you chose to end the story. And the detail. Woman…you rock
Very intriguing, I could picture it all. Wonderfully written and leaves me wanting more of the story. Kudos!
I was led right into the story, feeling her confusion and believing her reactions. You surprised me throughout and shocked and awed me at the end. I didn't see it coming! I loved how you wove history in and made it make perfect sense with her area of study tie-in. This is a winner in my book! How many hearts can I give?