night, exactly three minutes before the clock strikes one, the phantom
train slips past. And every night she watches for it from her bedroom
window, and when she sees it she opens the window and leans out as far
as she dares.
The girl has no name. Her mother lay ill for well over a month after her birth, and it fell to six-year-old Barry to feed the infant watered-down milk and try to keep it quiet. When their mother recovered Barry tried to return the child to her, but she refused to touch it. She said it was not her child. So Barry kept on tending her as best he could, but he always hoped their mother would after all accept the child, and he didn’t think he should name her. The girl’s father took one look at her and showed no further interest.
The phantom train started coming in her eleventh year, soon after they buried her mother. It is one part fear and two parts desire to her, and she cannot sleep until she has seen it.
But Barry learned to love her, and once when she was five years old he told her a story about a girl with no name who was later discovered to be a princess. In typical little girl fashion, she asked him if she was a princess too. Barry looked at her and told her yes, she was his princess. After that, ‘Princess’ became his name for her.
Sometimes it slows down. Once it stopped and she could feel the passengers inviting, “Will you not come to us?” Though frightened, she wanted to. But she did not.
To most people, she is invisible. When she goes into town with Barry, people will smile and say hello to him and the girls giggle and flirt. But everyone’s eyes slide over her as if she was not there. “Barry Jacobson’s odd half-sister”, they’ll say if a stranger inquires about her, but mostly they simply don’t notice. Even her father does not really look at her. But that, she feels, is a gift from God.
It took two years for her to decide to tell Barry about the phantom train, and he has never seen it. It come for her, not for him, and they both know it. So he does not even try. But he is frightened she will slip away on it some dark night, so he makes her promise not to leave without telling him first.
Barry could never respect her father, the man who had turned their mother’s thoughts only inward and who seemed to loathe his daughter. For years Barry was frightened of him, but by the time he was fifteen his step-father had lost even that. At seventeen Barry was taller than most men and hard-muscled from years of working in their stone quarry. Her father was no match for him and Barry would have left had it not been for her.
It passes over the field, not half a mile from her bedroom window, and the sound of it is a soft rustling clicking and a swift rushing through the night. She watches it and as she grows, she longs to go, would go, but for her brother.
By twenty, Barry can have his pick of the young woman of the county, but he never seems to prefer one over the other. In truth, the only important female in his life is his sister. She is a thin stick at fourteen, with flat pale hair, overlarge starved eyes, and nondescript features. She was always too thin and even after she became a woman she did not gain much of a figure.
At one point, when she longed for her mother, she tried to imagine that the woman would be on the train. But she could never quite do it. Her mother and the phantom train do not belong together any more than she and her mother belonged together.
She knows he should marry. It would be the natural path for his life to take. But she does not think she could live without him, and this is not an exaggeration. She knows the only reason her father ignores her existence is because of Barry’s protection.
Someday she will board the train and go with it. She knows this beyond shadow of a doubt. She does not know where it will take her, but this does not bother her. She knows it will take her to where she should be.
So when her father and Barry come in from the quarry and she sees Barry stumbling and leaning on her father, she does not panic. Nor when he tells her a rock fell on him and she sees his chest crushed and knows he will not live to see the sunrise. She merely does what she can to ease his pain and sits next to him, holding his hand and weeping silently. He apologizes again and again, but it was not his fault. She knows he does not want to leave her, does not want to die. She is only saddened because he is hurting and she loves him, and because he is young and strong and has always lived cramped with a man he despises. So she clings to his hand while he slowly, slowly dies. It is not until the clock has struck midnight that he draws his last painful breath. And his last words are whispered to her- “Take that train, Princess.”
The night is misty cool as she crosses the fields. There are no railroad tracks of course, but she knows exactly where the train will pass and she stops several paces away. When it comes, she is unsurprised to see it slowing to a halt. One the doors swing open and a Man with the most beautiful eyes she has ever seen holds out a hand for her. She looks back to the houselights dim in the distance, and she sighs. She did not think her life was good but it is harder than she expected to let it all go. To let Barry go. But he has already gone and perhaps, someday, she may see him again. Perhaps, but not if she stays in that cold house. She turns back to take the Man’s strong hand and with a small smile, she boards her phantom train.