CustardQuest III - Clues Revealed

"I smell dead things," Will had whispered.

It had been one of those late-autumn days in which the brittle morning air softens in the afternoon sun. There were two unusual things about
November 12, 2012. First, although it was a Monday, we had no school because it was a holiday. And second, it was unseasonably warm. It was such a fantastic coincidence that it made you wonder whether god was an 11-year-old kid too.

I had curled my lip when Will pointed out the stench in the air. We were
walking behind the museum in an alley downtown, but ahead was the back door to Janis Lyn's Meat Market, and the dumpster was right outside the rear exit. Janis's husband, Mr. Fideli, was dumping something that had once been under fur or feathers into the trash receptacle. Mr. Fideli was so old that I didn't know whether the foul odor was decomposing animals or one of Mr. Fideli's feet, which had been in the grave for years.

He looked up from his gruesome work as we passed. "Where you boys going?" The smell of rotting flesh was sweeter than the tone of his voice.

"Down to the tracks," I said, although Will and I hadn't discussed any particular destination when we'd departed the Scotts' farmhouse on Route 24, which turned into Main Street when you reached the edge of downtown.

"I'd be careful." Mr. Fideli only half glared at us, because his lazy eye was looking at who knows what.

"Nice talking to you," said Will. "Always a pleasure."

continued due south. Part of the navy sky was hidden behind beautiful clouds, and a river of geese flowed through the fluff on their way southward. The orange sun was stitched to the sky with glittering scarlet and gold thread. The twins would have been doing chores had this been such a nice day in the summer, but there wasn't much to do on their farm this time of year. Windy was playing in a soccer all-star game this weekend, and her practice today left our motley trio a duo.

"I see dead things," whispered Will, as a funeral procession made its way up Main Street.

To our north was the Faithful Always Memorial Chapel, and the death parade was heading there. I didn't like to take the sidewalk past it because behind the wood-and-stone chapel was a marble forest of monuments and memorials. The creepy old cemetery was small and bordered the railroad tracks. The sun lit each memorial this late in the autumn, unlike in the summer when the surrounding forest-green canopy hid them in locust shade. Park (Park)ing in the large lot east of the chapel, the black Cadillac hearse killed its engine. I walked with fortitude past the cemetery and toward the tracks, determined not to see the poor soul disembark from the Caddy.

Past the chapel, we took a path through a small wooded area on the outskirts of downtown. Just when we had left the discomfort of the cemetery behind, something even more discomforting took its place in my brain. "Do you think there are any dead people in these woods, Will?"

"Why would there be any dead people here?" he had asked. "Spare me your ghost theories, please. This is my day off from school and unexplained phenomena."

woods border the cemetery behind the old chapel," I told him. "I'm sure they didn't mark all the graves very well back in the old days. There has to be some dead people under these woods. Maybe this is what Mr. Fideli was talking about when he told us to be careful."

There are no dead things in these woods." Will shook his head. "Except your brain."

I wasn't so sure about either of Will's assertions at the time, but now I'm 100% sure he was wrong about both.

The path through the woods led to a gully. Somebody had constructed a small wooden footbridge consisting of 4"x4" lumber buttressed by old red bricks, and thick moss tried to repel our boots when we crossed it. The path then turned sharply south, running parallel to the double tracks, until forking 80 feet past the bridge. One path led over the railroad tracks and toward the river on the other side. The other path continued beside the tracks until it disappeared into the distance.

Although Robert Frost pondered which path to take, he was not a lazy 11-year-old kid on a day off from school. We took neither the road more nor less traveled but instead
plopped ourselves down right there at the fork on a large rectangular boulder along the northern edge of the path. The boulder was completely flat on top, providing a perfect place for crossed legs, a pair of muddy boots, and idleness.

The rocks that lined the (t)rails spilled over to the area around the boulder too, and Will started throwing them across the tracks at a faded sign. I did the same. Wordlessly, a competition started up, with each of us keeping score silently. It was no contest really. Will was destroying the old metal railway sign. Every clang made my head jar and my teeth chatter and was sure to wake any forgotten souls resting under the trees behind us.

After a half-hour, Will finally asked me how many hits I had, and he laughed in my face. "
Ninety-five to one? You scored only one more point than a dead person," he said. He leaned down again and reached for a nondescript gray stone just under an overhang at the bottom of the boulder. After peeling it from the mud, he heaved it at the sign.

But just as the rock left Will's hand, something very small dislodged from its underside. A soft ding tickled our ears when it landed on the
bed of rocks beside the tracks.

Will jumped up to retrieve it. He studied it until he sat back down beside me.

The interesting little thingy was metal, flat, and about the length and width of a toy Matchbox car. Will rubbed off some dirt with the pad of his thumb.

"Let me see," I said. But when I reached for it, Will spat on it, and I gladly let him retain possession.

Will squinted. "
There's something engraved on it, but I can't read it."

"May I have that back?" said a voice.

On the other side of the double railroad tracks, walking up from the woods along the banks of the river was a man. His face was pale but dirty, and it was as expressionless and weathered as the gray autumn trees from which he had emerged. He wore
formal but shabby pants and a matching long jacket with a bunch of buttons and pockets on it. The fabric was faded to a dull olive tone. He was generally disheveled, except for his hair, which was cropped tightly.

He held out his hand as he approached. Crossing the tracks, he did not look down at the uneven ground but kept focused on the object in Will's hand. I will never forget his eyes. Although I might have interpreted them as vacant and void of emotion at the time, now I think I would better describe them as being filled with a deep sadness.

The man's advance was not threatening, but always the
first to fight, Will jumped to his feet and assumed an aggressive posture. I assumed a frightened posture behind my best and bigger friend.

"How do I know it's yours?" shouted Will as the man neared us.

The stranger's expression did not change. He kept walking, hand outstretched. The skin over his bony fingers sagged, although he could not have been much older than 21.

The man with a face as whitewashed as the old wood siding on the Scotts' farmhouse finally stopped about 6 feet from us. By this time, I had moved from behind Will, and the three of us formed points of a
triangle, valleys of suspicion dividing us.

He still held out his hand. "May I have that back?"

"Prove it's yours," said Will.

"My name is on it."

Will looked over both the front and back of the metal piece, eyed the man, and then studied it again. Will offered it to me, and when I wouldn't take it, he shoved it into my palm. "Do you see any name on this, Custard?"

There clearly was something stamped into the metal, but it was impossible to say what because the metal was so dimpled and dented. "What's your name?" I asked him.

"Jefferson, sir."

"So is his name on it?" asked Will. I shrugged and handed it back to Will as fast as I could.

"I don't see it on here," Will told him. "I'm keeping it. For all I know, it's worth some money on eBay."

The man's hand was still reaching out, palm up, waiting, but he said nothing.

My preference at the time would have been to give up the goods and run. But not Will, who said, "If you want to fight, then let's
battle. Cross that line, and it's on, bro."

The young man's eyes betrayed nothing that was going on inside his head. If he was angry or sad, he did not display either emotion to us.

The odd man lowered his hand. "Sometimes, I'm cold," he said.

The stranger turned and walked back across the raised railway bed, never saying another word. Descending down the riverbank into the woods, he finally disappeared from sight.

"I have an idea," I said. "Let's go home. And right now."

"I have a better idea," said Will. He started to run across the tracks. "Let's find out where he's going."

I wasn't about to chase the man. Sure, I was a paranormal investigator, but I rationalized that there was nothing paranormal about any of what had just happened. Just very weird.

"He's gone," said Will from atop the railway bed. He looked in every direction. "He's either
amphibious and in the river, or he vanished into thin air.

The situation had just turned slightly paranormal.

Will and I headed back toward downtown via the wooded path, and, of course, Will was not convinced anything paranormal was afoot. He said the man obviously ran away as soon as he got into the woods, knowing he had committed the offense of first-degree stranger danger.

Just as we exited the woods, we heard the whistle of a train behind us as it traveled through town. Hopefully, our strange visitor had hopped it and was headed out of town in a boxcar.

This time we opted to
take the brick-lined sidewalk toward the square downtown instead of cutting through the more deserted back alley behind the stores, which was fine with me.

"There is something more to this," I said, as we stopped at the Do Not Walk signal on Main Street. "Let me see that thing again." Will took it out of his pocket and handed it to me.

"May I see that, son?" An elderly gentleman was sitting on a park bench at the town square. I had seen the man sitting in that same place every day for as long as I could remember.

The worn wooden cane leaning against the bench must have convinced Will that the old-timer was not a threat to run off with our find, because he did not object when I handed it over.

"Just what I thought. This is a
military dog tag," the man said. "Where'd you find it?"

"Over by the tracks," I said.

The man's fail body shuddered, so much that his cane crashed to the cement. "You said by the railroad tracks?"

"Yep," said Will. "Some weird homeless guy in beat-up clothes tried to take it away from us, but I'm glad we kept it. A real dog tag is pretty cool."

The man's mouth gaped open, and his eyes didn't move from Will for a full ten seconds, until he finally peered through his bifocals at the piece of metal. "I know whose this is."

Although we doubted the old man's claim at that moment, we didn't doubt it for long.

"This is David's," he said. "David Jefferson's."

Something unseen punched me in the gut, taking all the wind from me. It was not the invisible fist of an apparition but the invisible pang of acute shock.

"How did you know that name?" asked Will.

"Says right here," he said. His arthritic finger rubbed the first line of the inscription. "
Jefferson, David."

We already knew the embossed letters were illegible, but somehow the man knew the name of the stranger we'd met. Will asked him how he knew, and here's what he told us:

David Jefferson was a young soldier, just a few years out of high school. He was killed in action in World War II in 1944. His remains were transported back to the states, at which point his casket was to be returned to his family's home in Bellville, a town just a few miles away and even smaller than ours. The train was set to be greeted at the station by half the village, the mayor, and the town band at exactly 3:00 p.m. But when the train reached the
fallen warrior's final resting place in Bellville, the casket was gone. Police, bloodhounds, and relatives scoured the train, but it had simply vanished. Search parties formed, and on horseback, foot, and motorbike they backtracked tens of miles along the train route from Bellville, but nobody ever found a single trace of David Jefferson.

"Until now," finished the old man. His eyes were black and wet like the skin of a swamp. He handed the tag back to me and then blotted the perspiration from the wrinkles on the back of his
leathery neck with a piece of tri-folded cloth from his breast pocket.

I convinced Will to return to the railroad tracks to investigate further. We had a real-life, true, unexplained phenomenon on our hands, for sure. Unfortunately, the being who had identified himself as "Jefferson" was nowhere to be found near the
railroad tracks. Not a clue was to be found along the riverbanks or the underbrush either. We even took another look under the big square rock where we had found the dog tag. In all, we discovered nothing except umpteen supersize McDonald's cups, a sun-bleached Drake's Devil Dogs box, and a sack of dumb fries, none of which seemed pertinent to the case at first glance. We left the scene.

At the fork in the road, where my street splits off from Route 24, Will and I entered the section of the Scott's cornfield that was wedged between their farmhouse and downtown. In the middle of the tall corn, we stopped at the rockpile, our hidden fort made from rocks Scott ancestors had hauled there from their crop fields for 150 years. I sat there for a long while, engraving a small stone with a sharp nail tip, while Will pretended to fight off invaders with a dry cornstalk rifle.

Just as I was finishing, Will announced, "I am victorious and hungry." He stabbed his crusty
brown rifle into a mound of sand. "Bags of potato chips and Skittles await the victors at my house, Sergeant Sucker." I tried to convince him to return to the tracks with me, but he said he was not going to further participate in my ridiculous paranormal investigation. So I headed back by myself.

Although it had been over an hour since we'd left the town square, the old man still sat on the park bench. His hands were stacked on the handle of the cane as he watched the world go by.

"Tell me something." I asked him. "How do you know for sure our tag is David's?"

The man unbuttoned the top button of his starched flannel shirt, revealing a thin neck
from which a long chain with a dog tag hung.

I held our dog tag next to his. Although I had harbored some doubt that our tag was really David Jefferson's, when I compared the two, they were identical in size and material, and the shape and length of the engravings on them appeared the same.

"As soon as I saw that tag, I knew it was my David's," he said.

"What do you mean
your David's?"

"David Jefferson was my eldest brother. The government sent us this one by post before David's body was shipped home. All soldiers are issued two identical dog tags they wear on a chain. If the soldier is killed, the second tag is collected, and the first remains with the body." The man tucked his dog tag back into his shirt and buttoned it. "When did you find that one?"

"Right before the train went through town this afternoon."

The old man held his stare on me but did not flinch. "The last train went through town four weeks ago, son. You kids didn't know that? They're going to tear up the tracks in a few months and start a
pathways project for a walking trail, so they say."

I told him that was impossible. Will and I had both distinctly heard the train when we were walking back toward downtown.

"The Ghost Train to Bellville," he said. "Some say they've heard it come through town at 2:50 p.m. in the afternoon, the exact time David's body would have passed through here 68 years ago. Those few who have seen it claim all the windows in the train are empty, except for a young man looking out one window. They say it's David looking for his lost body. I've been coming here for six decades waiting to hear it myself."

In my business as a paranormal investigator, I've had to become pretty good at sizing up people to determine if they are telling the truth. There was nothing about this man that made me think he was being anything but 100% truthful.

"I want you to have this," I said and handed him the dog tag we'd found by the tracks.

The man accepted it in his wrinkled palm and laced it through his necklace chain.

"I'm going to put this rock down by the tracks," I said, showing him the special stone I'd just engraved at the rockpile. "It has some information on it, just in case David shows up again and wants to talk to me."

"May I have the honor?" he asked. "I am going away this week. It's a place far from here, but it's special. I can put it where only David will find it."

I knew Will would already be mad that I gave the man the dog tag he found, so I had hesitated to give him my stone too. Will would say I'm gullible. He'd tell me that there was a reasonable explanation for everything we'd experienced, and this geezer was just trying to trick us out of our cool stuff.

As I walked back to my house across the cornfield from the Scott farm that day, I still didn't know whether I believed the old man's whole story, but my parents confirmed later that the trains did, in fact, stop passing through town a month ago.

Although my parents had never heard of David Jefferson or the legend of the Ghost Train to Bellville, I believe the story the old man on the park bench told me. That's why I decided to give him my stone to hide somewhere where David would be able to find it.

It's been almost a month now, but Will is still mad that I gave the old man both the dog tag and my stone. But
once a True Believer, always a True Believer, I guess. It's something neither Will nor Windy will ever understand.