Valerie gathered her things. A notebook, a couple of pencils and a couple of plastic baggies full of cookies and chips for snacks. She had also snagged two water bottles as well. She stuffed everything into Alex's backpack as he sat at the kitchen table watching her.
“I get to haul everything again?" he asked with a frustrated sigh.
"Well, yeah. You always have your backpack anyway!" she replied, simply.
He frowned slightly, knowing her logic was not quite right. "Maybe YOU should buy one!" he retorted.
She ignored the statement and zipped his backpack shut.
"C'mon, we better move it, it’s supposed to rain later today."
"So now you're a weatherman?"
"Weatherwoman," she shot back. "No, Dad told me this morning."
The faint sound of the furnace kicking on in the basement below made her conscious of the cold. "We’d better grab a sweater, too," she added.
After quickly grabbing a couple of hooded sweatshirts -- and getting a warning from their father to be back in time for dinner -- the Valerie and Alex flew out the front door and ran down the stairs of the front porch ready to head out on a mission. Pam waved at them from the gardens, having decided to spend the day outdoors herself.
They made their way down to the entrance of the bicycle path, right at the end of their property. It was lined with flowerbeds and two park benches invited walkers to stop and take a rest. Valerie and Alex hurried down the asphalt of the path, as the creek gurgled along beside them.
It was very cool today, but at least there was no wind. The sun shone through the bare branches of the trees above as they walked along, chattering about where to start their mission. Squirrels darted across the path in front of them, busy gathering food for the coming winter, and birds chirped away, enjoying the sunshine on this cool fall day. They crossed several streets and two wooden bridges that spanned the creek. They stopped several times because Alex insisted on feeding several families of ducks that swam in the creek. He tossed them some of the chips Valerie had brought with them. As they rambled over a third bridge, Valerie and Alex both paused to watch small fish swimming in the waters below. They were getting closer and closer to the railway tunnel.
Once a bustling cargo transfer location, and a centre that had provided both jobs and provisions for the people, the tunnel was all but abandoned now and was mostly boarded up to protect it against squatters and graffiti. But Valerie knew that the chains holding the doors shut were loose enough to let them squeeze through: they had done it before…
As they walked along, Valerie and Alex both noticed that the sound of birds and crickets had stopped. The atmosphere around them had become dead silent, other than the light sounds of their footsteps along the asphalt. The massive doors of the tunnel entrance emerged into view and the two children subconsciously slowed their pace.
As they came closer, the dark, thick wood of the doors loomed in front of them. They stepped off the path, moving even slower, and stepped towards the tunnel through a grove of bare trees. A large cloud moved swiftly across the sun's face and cast a shadow on the grove and the massive doors momentarily, as if a curtain had been drawn closed. Alex felt a cold shiver grip him as he looked up at the ancient wooden doors.
"Maybe we should come back tomorrow," he said, trying to conceal his growing fear from his sister.
"What? No way! You're not scared, are you?" asked his sister.
"No. But if someone catches us, we could get in trouble."
"No one will see us. Once we are inside, we're fine."
With that she unzipped his backpack and rummaged around to find a small flashlight that she knew would be amongst his “collection”. She retrieved it and zipped his backpack up again.
Valerie stepped forward to the darkened opening between the huge doors. Alex followed right behind her. A slight breeze stirred the tree branches around them, causing a clattering amongst the bare wood that made Alex shiver again. Valerie ignored it, squeezed herself sideways through the gap between the doors and disappeared into the darkness inside. Alex hesitantly took one last look around him and, with a deep breath, squeezed through to follow her.
There was the musty smell of something old and damp in the gloom of the tunnel. The sound of an occasional drop of water falling from the curved stonework of the ceiling high above reverberated in the hollow emptiness. As Valerie illuminated their way with the small flashlight, the children slowly ventured forward. On the ground, they could make out the rusted and ancient-looking steel rails in the dim light. As they shuffled forward, Valerie swept the light around in an attempt to avoid tripping on anything. Alex held firmly to the straps of his backpack and walked carefully in his sister's steps.
Their eyes eventually adjusted somewhat to the gloom and they could begin to make out the rotted wood ties underneath the narrow track, some of them crumbled and covered in reddish dust from the rust everywhere. The air was moist and cold as they continued forward, their breath a fog in the still darkness of the tunnel. There was a sudden high-pitched chirp from somewhere ahead of them -- a sound that both of the children recognized. Bats! Alex cringed, waiting for the rush of the winged creatures that they had probably disturbed. But nothing happened; the bats didn't come swooping at them!
"Did you hear that?" he asked Valerie.
"Yep,” she whispered back. “Hopefully there is only a couple."
They moved slower, trying not to disturb the night creatures that they figured were probably suspended from the ceiling above and around them. A shape emerged slowly in the illuminated area of the tiny flashlight. Eventually, whatever it was, it filled the space in front of them. They moved cautiously forward towards their discovery. It was massive and steel -- and covered in rust. Valerie pointed the light up, then down and swept it from side to side. A giant triangular piece of steel jutted out from the front of the hulking object, down near the rails, underneath its bullet-shaped nose. It was a locomotive!
Valerie and Alex crept closer. In the dim glow of the flashlight, they could see the long steel cylinder, sitting atop massive steel wheels, its number plates discoloured from age on either side of where its headlamp should have been. The broken socket of the headlight resembled some kind of strange eye, empty and lifeless in the gloom. Valerie stepped to the side and pointed the beam ahead of them. There were several cars on the track behind the locomotive that disappeared into the darkness, equally covered in rust and barely visible with the small light.
"Whoa," said Valerie quietly.
"Yeah, that's old!" said Alex in awe.
"It's a steam locomotive!" said Valerie.
There was a sudden fluttering above as several bats sped past, awakened early from their slumber. Dust trickled through the light of the flashlight and the children ducked instinctively. A few moments later, the silence returned and Valerie tentatively placed her hand against the thick steel of the locomotive. It was rough, bubbled by rust and cold.
"This is it," she stated simply.
"This is what? It's a train!" replied Alex.
Valerie looked back at him with an expression that told him that his statement was obvious.
"It's not just a train... It's the last train!"
Her voice echoed down the tunnel, as the two children turned back to look at the locomotive again. Valerie recounted the story of this train to her brother, reminded him that this was the final train to come from the waterfront docks hauling lumber from the shipyard, halted by the terrible accident with the brakeman who had worked it. After the brakeman had been found and his body carried away to be put in his final resting place, the rest of the trainmen had tried to move the giant forward again to complete their task, but it broke down and was abandoned. The rail company who had owned the train had fallen into bankruptcy and the train had been simply left there, entombed in the tunnel.
"So, it will be here forever?" asked Alex.
"Maybe. It wouldn't be an easy thing to get out of here."
They stood silently for a few moments, looking up at the huge steel vehicle in front of them in the gloom. Valerie stepped across the rails and moved to the side of the tunnel, shining the light down the length of the ancient looking machine. Alex followed her. The children could make out the numbers on the side of the steel: 1542. The engineer’s compartment was an empty black hole in the back end of the steel plating and was covered in cobwebs.
Suddenly, another light emerged from the darkness, further down the tunnel along the side of the train. It floated in the gloom as it moved slowly towards them. The sheer sight of it made the children shiver. Who or what could be in here with them? Alex backed up a step and held firm on the straps of his backpack. Valerie kept her eyes in the direction of the light, but also backed up close beside her brother. Their hearts started to pound and they both felt the rush of blood pounding in their ears. The light swayed hypnotically back and forth and grew brighter and brighter as it came towards them. It wasn’t a flashlight though, they realized; it was a small flame burning inside a glass lantern! Valerie and Alex stepped back toward the doors that they knew were behind them. Alex's eyes grew wider as he tried to see what was coming at them. Valerie held the flashlight in her shaking hands as she retreated another step. Their minds raced to try to process what they were seeing in the darkness in front of them.
The lantern reflected its light off of the rusted steel of the train, still advancing. As it came closer, Valerie recognized that it was an old oil lantern. It was covered thickly in cobwebs that waved gently from the heat of the light. But, Valerie felt confused -- there was a problem with what her eyes were seeing, and Alex gasped slightly as the realization hit them both at the same time: there was no one holding this floating lamp in the darkness! It seemed to float and bob slightly, like someone was carrying it, but there was absolutely no one there!
Their breath froze as they watched in horrible fascination for just a moment more, but that was it: Alex was the first to turn and run, nearly tripping over the rails in his haste. Valerie was right behind him, nearly running him over. Their shoes crunched loudly on the gravel as they sped toward the sliver of daylight streaming in through the tunnel’s doors. After quickly squeezing through the opening, they continued to run -- they didn’t even dare to look behind them.
The sunlight hit them as they darted through the grove of trees at the entrance, but they didn’t stop running, even when they hit the asphalt of the bicycle path. Finally they slowed down, their lungs on fire, but they still walked quickly in the direction towards home. Finally they glanced back nervously at the huge wooden doors, hoping that they would not see anything following.
"That was scary!" exclaimed Alex, trying to catch his breath.
"Yeah, I'm glad we are the heck out of there!" panted Valerie.
They made their way home, not talking much as they walked, both of them barely able to believe what they had just witnessed. Valerie was deeply lost in her thoughts as she walked. This was certainly a different kind of adventure than they had ever been on before...