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August 2020
 
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A Stormy Night at Wellington Depot

by Rick Grehan



Wellington, New Hampshire

August, 1920

Everett arrived at the Wellington train depot at about nine that evening. Lightning had been playing in the southern sky for hours, so in spite of the warmth and humidity, he wore his rain slicker. He clomped up the ramp to the depot's platform, where he found Bob Fogg leaning forward on a stool and reading a paper under the platform's single, electric bulb. Bob looked up.

"Good evenin', Robuht," Everett said.

"Everett," the other acknowledged. "Whatcha' down heah at the depot foah?"

Everett settled onto another stool against the wall and said, "Wanted tah meet the Winchendon train tannite. Might be mail aboahd." Everett was the postman for the small town of Wellington, New Hampshire. He had held that position for over 30 years, a fact he was happy to announce whenever the opportunity arose.

"Suit'cha self," Bob said, shrugging. "Doubt theyah's gonna be any, but yah know the mail bettah than me. Been at it thirty yeahs now."

"Thirty-one," Everett corrected, fishing through his pockets for his pipe and tobacco pouch. "Mistah Peabody back?" he asked.

Bob returned to his paper, and answered without looking up, "Won't be back 'til Tuesdee. Still in Springfield at his sistah's dauh-tah's weddin'."

"That would be what'cha call a 'niece'," Everett observed, lighting his pipe. Bob ignored the observation.

Mr. Peabody was the stationmaster at the Wellington depot; Bob was his assistant. In Mr. Peabody's absence, Bob became acting stationmaster -- and, lately Mr. Peabody had been absent a great deal. Fortunately, Bob had been around so long and ran the depot so well that no one noticed.

Lightning had continued sparking in the distance, so far off over the southern hills that the thunder that reached Wellington was a soft, distant grumbling. Suddenly, the sky lit with a much brighter flash; one that, for an instant, made the trees around the depot clearly visible. Bob lowered his paper, and both men turned their attention south. When the thunder arrived, it was the rolling, banging sort that echoed and re-echoed from hill to hill, threatening to bounce around forever.

After the sounds had died, Bob spoke: "Gonna be wicked."

"Ayuh," agreed Everett.

South from the depot the tracks ran in an almost straight line to the shores of Powder Pond, the small lake that the Wellington dam created with the help of the northward-flowing Contoocook River. So, the railroad line created a corridor that gave the two men an unobstructed view of the southern sky. And as they sat and watched -- one puffing his pipe, the other still holding his opened newspaper -- that sky was filled with a show that held them fascinated.

Again and again, the lightning traced outlines like leafless tree branches burning an evil orange. Some of the bolts hung in the air an unnaturally long time, twisting and writhing. Thunder, still distant, boomed continuously.

Another brilliant stroke flashed. The depot's lights blinked. Bob and Everett both glanced up at the bulb that hung by its electrical wire from the platform's ceiling.

"Might lose powah," Everett observed, puffing.

"Ayuh ... might," Bob agreed. "Mistah Peabody has a gasoline dynamo on a wagon out in the shed. I can keep the lights and phone goin'." He tilted his head up the rails to the north. "Dunno if I can get Hillsburrah by it, but -- " He tilted his head south. "I can raise Elmwood Junction."

"And you'll be wantin' that, I own," Everett mused. "Elmwood has lines tah Nashua and Keene if we need tah call fah help."

Bob closed his paper with a snap. "Help!? Everett Tenney, yah talk like this is a hurrahcane! It's just a summah thundah stohm!"

Everett withdrew his pipe from his mouth and gestured to the south. A bolt arced just as he did. "You shoah about that, Robuht? I was readin' in Poplah Science how some typhoons -- which is what they call hurrahcanes in the Pacific -- come on so fast folks don't realize theyah in one 'til it's too late. Whole towns gone. In one night!"

Bob re-opened his paper with another loud snap. He knew it was useless to argue with the postman once he brought Popular Science -- or Popular Mechanics -- into the conversation. Everett subscribed to both magazines; awaited the mail's delivery of each like a child waiting for Christmas; and read, quoted, and revered both like Biblical testaments.

"If we need help that bad, I'm shoah I can find a way t' call Hillsburrah," Bob growled. There was another bright flash. He closed his paper and put it under his stool, stood up, and muttered, "I'll fetch that dynamo, just in case."

Bob left the platform, and passed through the depot's small waiting room.

Everett heard the back door of the depot open and close. He continued to puff and watch the lightning. It had not yet begun to rain, but every now and then he heard the loud, wet slap of individual raindrops among the trees.

The back door opened again, and the the cart's wheels rumbled over the waiting room's floor as Bob rolled the dynamo into a corner. Suddenly, everything was bathed in the bright orange light of an immense bolt that twisted and snapped just above the trees. Smaller bolts shot from the main branch, ran scattering through the clouds. The sky was lit for what must have been ten seconds, and when the light show had gone out and darkness had returned to the heavens, the bone-shaking thunder that followed reverberated for another ten seconds.

The bulb over the platform flickered wildly, seemed to sway in the waves of thunder, then resumed its steady glow.

Everett pulled his pipe out of his mouth to say, "Loahd have -- "

The phone in the office jangled.

Everett looked over his shoulder, through the ticket window, and into the stationmaster's office. The call bell rang again. Bob entered the office, picked up the candlestick phone, and put the receiver to his ear.

"Wellington depot," he called into the mouthpiece.

Not wanting to be seen eavesdropping, Everett put his pipe back into his mouth and returned his attention to the storm. Though he could only hear one side of the conversation, he could work out most of what was being said on the other end. It was the stationmaster at Elmwood Junction, about five miles to the south. The storm had already arrived there, and in that last, ferocious lightning bolt, one of the men at the station had seen something. Something in the sky. Everett could not determine what it was that the fellow had seen; it sounded like the man didn't know himself. But Everett did hear Bob exclaim: "On fiyah?"

The conversation ended. Bob hung up the phone and returned to the platform. He stood looking south. The wind gusted, and a flurry of raindrops pattered through the trees and thunked on the roof.

"That Elmwood that called?" Everett asked. "They all right?"

"Ayuh," Bob responded, returning to his stool, but continuing to look down the tracks. "But they say they saw somethin' in the lightnin'."

"Somethin' in the lightnin'?" Everett repeated. "How d'yuh mean? An ayahplane?"

"Dunno," Bob replied. "Roy said somethin' flew ovahhead. Said it looked t' be on fiyah."

"On fiyah?" Everett echoed, then whistled.

"Ayuh. Roy said he thought it went down in the pond. Says he heard a big splash. Hard t' tell, though, it's stormin' so down theyah."

Another passing army of raindrops hit the roof, the trees, and another gust set the overhead light bulb swinging.

"Musta been an ayahplane tryin' t' get t' Nashua, or Manchestah," Everett mused.

Bob shook his head. "Would ah been a damn fool t' fly in a night like this."

"Mightah got caught. Weathah came up quick."

The rain fell steadily now, and gust followed gust, hissing through the surrounding trees. The sky flashed, illuminating the pair of tracks like two beams of light pointing south along the ground. Thunder clapped.

"Ayuh -- came up quick. Theyah callin' Hillsburrah and Pete-ah-burrah now; see if anyone has a wiyahless and heard somethin'."

Everett nodded his approval, then said, "Worth a try, but this lightnin' may be causin' too much intahference. I read in the radio electronics ahticle in Poplah Mechanics how lightnin' makes --"

Bob stood up suddenly and pointed. "What's that?"

He was pointing south. Everett rose from his stool and squinted.

"A light's comin' up the tracks," Bob said.

"The Winchendon train?" Everett asked.

"Nope, Elmwood woulda' told me. And that's no engine lamp."

Everett could see it now. A small light, too small to be a train's. Its narrow beam swept the ground, waving back and forth.

"That's someone with a lantuhn," Bob said.

In the next lightning flash, Everett saw that Bob was right. Through the rain, the postman could just make out the shape of a person striding toward the depot along the tracks.

"He'll be soggy when he gets heyah," Everett observed.

Another flash, and the men saw that the stranger approaching was wearing a slicker or overcoat. They waited silently, and in a moment, he was standing on the tracks next to the station's platform, looking up at them.

He was indeed wearing some sort of slicker. It hung past his knees, and was as reflective as metal foil. The man was tall, probably over six feet, and bald. His hand lantern seemed to be nothing more than a small, silver cylinder. He touched its base and the light went out.

"Well," Bob called, waving at the man, "get undah the roof, mistah, 'fore yah drown."

The stranger jumped from tracks to platform floor so quickly and effortlessly that Everett took a startled step back, nearly falling over his stool.

Now that the stranger was fully in the light, the two men saw that, not only was he bald, he was completely hairless -- no eyebrows, not even eyelashes. In addition, his nose was tiny, and what there was of one was shapeless, lying nearly flat on his face.

Everett leaned toward Bob slightly and whispered," Poor devil. Burned in the Great Wauh; flame thowah, I bet. Most nevah grow hair back. Heard one fellah lost his nose completely, had tah weah a wooden one." He turned toward the stranger, saluted, and said, "Evening, soljah, where yah from?"

The man tilted his head slightly, apparently confused by Everett's salute. He blinked slowly. Then, he pointed down the tracks and said, "There."

The two men exchanged glances, looked down the tracks, then back at the soldier. Bob opened his mouth to say something, but the soldier interrupted by pointing up to the light hanging from the platform's ceiling.

"May I use some of your electricity?" he asked.

Now the two men followed the man's finger to the light, looked again at one another, then back to the soldier.

"If yer askin' t' wait in the light 'til this weathah passes," Bob said, "Yer welcome. But too much in the light won't be comf'table -- plenty ah mosquitoes tannite."

"Rain's driven 'em undah the roof," Everett added.

The soldier blinked again, and this time both men noticed that, whereas most people's eyelids blink down, his lower eyelids blinked up, too -- both upper and lower eyelids met in the middle.

"'Welcome'," the soldier repeated slowly, as though talking to himself, "means 'yes'."

While Bob and Everett watched, the soldier walked over to a barrel that stood against the station's wall, picked it up, carried it to the spot directly beneath the light, and set it down. He reached into a pocket in his slicker, pulled out a little metal box, and from its back unspooled what appeared to be a thread.

He climbed atop the barrel and, with some sort of clamp at the thread's end, attached the thread to the hanging light's wire. The soldier touched the front of the box. Its dark surface was suddenly covered by glowing lights and strange, illuminated shapes. At the same instant, the ceiling lamp dimmed, as did the lights in the waiting room and office.

Bob took an uneasy step toward the man, saying, "Say, soljah, just what in hell -- "

The soldier turned his head sharply to face Bob, who stopped. "Do not worry," the soldier said calmly, "nothing will be damaged." He returned his attention to the box.

Everett leaned toward Bob and whispered, "Maybe y' shoulda shown him the dynamo." Bob grunted.

The two watched as the stranger's fingers danced across the surface of the box. In response to his touch, the lights changed in shape and number, flashing through a rainbow of colors. He stopped, held his hand away from the box, and the lights held their current pattern for half a dozen heartbeats. Then, suddenly, they flickered into a new arrangement, and he resumed his tapping.

"Everett, evah read about anything like this in Poplah Science?" Bob whispered.

It was several moments before Everett answered. "Nope."

As this was taking place, the lights throughout the station flickered and dimmed. Sometimes the flickering appeared to be synchronized with the changing lights on the soldier's box.

Suddenly, the whole face of the box turned bright blue, flashed three times, then went dark. The soldier made what sounded like a chuckle of satisfaction, and detached the thread from the wire. He climbed down from the barrel, and the thread disappeared into the little box, which he returned to his pocket. He slid the barrel back to where it had originally stood against the wall.

Everett returned to his stool. He re-lit his pipe and puffed on it silently, regarding the soldier intently. Bob was still standing; his eyes went from the light above the platform to the lights inside the station and back. The flickering of the station lights had ceased the moment the box had gone dark.

Lightning flashed. Thunder boomed. Another downpour beat upon the station's roof.

"I must remain here for a short time," the stranger said. "Is that acceptable?"

When Bob -- still looking from interior lights to platform light and back -- didn't answer, Everett leaned forward and said, "I bet the stationmastah heah won't mind, soljah." He waved his pipe at Bob.

Bob shook himself and said, "Yer welcome t' wait." He pointed down the platform. "Theyah's a bench at t'other end. If yah'd like, yah can pull it up and sit with us. But it prob-blee won't be a shoht time. If yer countin' on a ride t' Winchendon tannite, they won't take passenjahs. And the bus t' Hillsburrah don't come 'til tuhmorrah at eleven."

The soldier was unmoved, apparently considering Bob's words. Finally, he said, "Someone is coming for me."

"How, by autahmobile?" Everett asked, then shook his head. "I dunno, mistah. I doubt anyone'll want tah try the roads in this." He gestured to the torrents of water now pouring off the platform roof.

Bob, who had sat back on his stool, asked, "Say, soljah, we never asked. How d'jah come t' be walkin' up the tracks in this weathah at this owah?"

"My ... vehicle ... was damaged. It fell into the water."

Bob and Everett both nodded knowingly.

"Must'a been on that stretch a' Pete-ah-burrah road just south a' town," Everett said. "Durin' mud season we lose track ah the number ah autahmobiles, trucks, and buses that go intah that ditch. Last town meetin' I said we oughtah put some kindah railin' up on it -- got voted down."

"I told yah," Bob grumbled, "that's a state road. The state oughtah tend to it."

"By the time the state tends tah that road, you and me will be sleepin' undah the hill behind the townhouse, and you know it, Robuht!"

Something began chirping. Bob and Everett looked up, peering into the corners and edges of the platform's ceiling, expecting to find that a sparrow had gotten itself momentarily trapped. The soldier pulled the box from his overcoat. A red light was flashing on one of its faces. The soldier touched its side, and both sound and light ceased. He walked quickly to the edge of the platform, looked left and right into the darkness, obviously agitated.

"Somethin' wrong, soljah?" Everett asked.

The soldier stepped back from the platform's edge. He looked up nervously at the light, then at the two men. "I must not be seen," he said.

"Not be seen? Yah mean y' gotta hide?" Bob asked. His eyes narrowed. "Who yah hidin' from, mistah?"

Everett touched Bob's arm. "Now, Robuht," he said in a low voice, "that man's a wounded vet'run. Let's you and me give him the benefit ah the doubt. See who shows up. If it's the law, we hand him ovah. If not -- well, I got my revolvah heah undah my slickah."

Bob scratched his chin for a moment, then stood and said, "Follow me, soljah."

He led the soldier off the platform, through the waiting area, and into the stationmaster's office.

"Yah can hunkah down behind the ticket winduh," Bob said. "Can't nobody see yah from outside. And if anyone comes into the waitin' room, just duck behind the desk."

The soldier disappeared into the office, and Bob returned to the platform. He was carrying a shotgun, which he leaned against the wall behind his stool. He sat down.

"Got a soft spot foah that young man, eh, Everett?" he asked softly.

"Ayuh," the postman said between puffs. "Any soljah wounded as bad as that in the Great Wauh has my sympathies."

"I ain't so shoah," Bob said, shaking his head. "Up close he don't look burnt. And he looks t' be too young t' seen action in the Wauh."

"It's always hahd tah tell the age of bad burn victims, the scahs covah the signs of agin'. And the fact it don't look like burns just goes tah show how fah medical science has come. Why, just last month I was readin' in Poplah Science how --"

Bob silenced Everett by tapping him on the shoulder and pointing down the tracks, the same direction the soldier had come from. Everett looked. Two lantern beams, of the same kind they'd seen as the soldier approached, were waving through the rain. The lights advanced swiftly.

Soon, Bob and Everett could discern two figures through the sheets of rain. They seemed to be wearing some kind of armor, and their heads were covered with strange, smooth helmets. Both strangers wore goggles as well, and along with their hand lanterns each also carried a slender, silver wand.

The two figures advanced to the edge of the platform. The strangers looked at Bob and Everett, then at each other, then back to Bob and Everett. Their faces were emotionless; their goggles gave them a disturbing, mechanical aspect.

Still seated, Bob let his arm drop to his side, so that his hand rested on the barrel of his shotgun. Everett held the bowl of his pipe in one hand, but tucked his other under his slicker and felt the handle of his revolver.

"Evenin', gentlemen!" Bob called. "I am Mistah Fogg, stationmastah of Wellington Depot." ("Actin' stationmastah!" Everett whispered.) "Is theah somethin' I can do foah yah tannite?"

The helmeted men conversed in low voices; too low for either Bob or Everett to make anything out. The conversation ended, and the stranger on the left said, "We are searching for someone. Someone you would not recognize." As he spoke, both he and his companion were scanning the depot windows and open door to the waiting area. "Is he in this building?"

Bob and Everett swapped looks. Everett shook his head slightly. Bob nodded in reply, then returned his attention to the strangers.

"This fellah youah looking foah," Bob said, "has he done somethin' illegal? Broke the law?"

The stranger on the left advanced. He raised the wand he was carrying. "I will search this building."

Both men rose quickly from their stools. Bob pulled his shotgun up and to his side in the process.

"Hold it right theah, mistah," he said through clenched teeth. "You ah standin' on Boston and Maine Railroad propahty. And unless yah show me a warrant and are accompanied by a law officah of the State of New Hampshah or the fed'ral govahnment of the United States, yah won't be searchin' heah."

The stranger took another step forward, but stopped suddenly at a sharp but unrecognizable word from his companion.

"Nobody wants trouble tannite," Everett said. "Besides, I believe the fellah yoah lookin' foah is on up the line." He gestured north with his pipe. "About ten minutes ago a man with a hand lamp like yoahs come by heah and headed up tah the paypah mill. I called if he wanted tah come out ah the rain, but he was in a wicked hurry and just kept goin'."

The stranger took a step back. He turned to his companion, and the two conversed rapidly in a strange language. Then, to Bob and Everett, he said, "Very well, we will search further along this conveyance structure." He returned to the tracks, and the two hurried away. A flash of lightning briefly lit their receding backs.

Everett withdrew his hand from under his slicker and reseated himself.

"I did not like those two one bit," he said. "Not polite at all."

Bob returned the shotgun to its place against the wall and sat down as well.

"What language do yah suppose that was, Everett? Didn't sound like Canadian French."

"No. Reminded me of Latin I once heard at a Cath'lic weddin' I was at two yeahs ago in Wilton. A friend of my sistah was --"

"Latin! Why, that's the dumbest -- " Bob began, then suddenly remembered the soldier. He leaned back and rapped the ticket window with his knuckle. "Say, mistah!" he called, "Yah can come out now!"

In a moment, the soldier reappeared on the landing. He walked cautiously to its edge and peered into the darkness. Lightning flashed, and he stepped quickly back.

"I thought the folks coming for you were going t' help yuh get yoah autahmobile out uh the ditch," Everett said. "Those fellahs did not appeah t' have any intention of doin' anyone any good."

"No," the soldier responded, casting looks both north and south into the darkness. "Those were not the -- " he paused " -- people who will help me."

"Why ah they aftah yah?" Bob asked, wariness in his voice.

"They damaged my ... my vehicle."

"Ran y' off the road did they?" Everett shook his head. "Damnation."

"Well," Bob said, "if yah got friends, I hope they come soon. Twon't take those fellahs hahdly any time t' get t' the paypah mill and find yah ain't theah. I imagine they'll be a bit --"

"My friends are coming now," the soldier interrupted. He pointed south down the tracks.

Bob and Everett turned and looked. Coming toward the depot was a bright cluster of lights. They were arranged in a strange, geometric pattern, and they swelled and brightened rapidly. Whatever was behind them was approaching quickly.

"If that's a train," Everett said, standing slowly. "I have nevah seen head lamps like that!"

"And whoevah's drivin' wouldn't last long in the cab," Bob added. He had left his stool as well. "The fool didn't blow his whistle for the road crossin'."

Whatever it was slowed, and pulled up next to the platform. What Bob and Everett could see by the depot lights and occasional lightning was a streamlined silver craft as long as a pullman's car and at least twice as tall. It had smooth sides, dotted occasionally with protuberances of mysterious shapes and unknown purposes. It came to a stop, and stood silently, except for a strange humming that the two men would later say they could not hear, but felt in their teeth.

"Could be that new Flyin' Yankee locahmotive," Everett whispered. "They got pictchas of it in th' April --"

"That's no locahmotive of any kind, Everett," Bob growled. "It's got no wheels!"

Everett stepped toward the platform's edge, leaned cautiously forward, and peered down. Sure enough, the thing was hovering over the tracks. He whispered, "Damnation!"

The silvery wall in front of him clicked and hissed. Everett jumped back as the outline of a door appeared in the hull. The door opened inward, and a peculiar light spilled out, along with a gust of odd-smelling air.

The soldier stepped forward. He turned to face Everett, and saluted in the same way that Everett had saluted him when he had first appeared. Everett blinked in surprise, then returned the salute.

Turning to face Bob, the soldier said, "Thank you for your electricity." He pointed to the bulb in the platform's ceiling.

Bob looked up at the light, then back to the soldier. "Yoah most welcome, mistah."

The soldier turned and stepped through the door. It closed, and its outline vanished. The distant humming deepened, and the air around the craft shimmered. As Bob and Everett watched, the craft lifted straight up, disappearing into the rain and darkness above the depot. The two men stepped to the platform's edge and peered upward, but all they saw was the night, filled with countless shimmering raindrops falling through the aura cast by the depot lights. They stepped back.

"Like I said, Everett, I'm not so shoah he was -- " Bob began, but stopped at the sound of running and splashing feet approaching. The two helmeted strangers appeared. They drew next to the platform. One stopped, and turned toward Bob and Everett. He raised his wand menacingly. Everett's hand shot to his side, feeling for his revolver's handle.

The other helmeted man, still running, barked what was obviously a command over his shoulder. The one facing the platform lowered his wand. He looked up the track toward his retreating companion, then back to the two on the platform. He seemed to weigh a decision, then -- baring his teeth -- made a kind of snarling, spitting sound, and ran off after his friend.

Bob and Everett watched the waving lantern beams recede into the dark, rain-filled distance.

"Nevah seen so many teeth in one head," Everett mused.

"I do believe that fellah cussed us," Bob said.

"Likely so, Robuht. Wouldn't be the fust time, won't be the last."

Bob shrugged. "True enough, Everett."

The two men returned to their stools. Everett tapped the ashes out of his pipe, refilled, and re-lit it. Bob pulled his paper from the floor, opened it, and returned to his reading. For several minutes, the only sound was the rainfall and intermittent distant thunder. The storm was receding to the north and east.

"It went straight up," Everett finally said.

"Ayuh, it did," Bob agreed, not lifting his eyes from his paper.

Everett pulled his pipe out of his mouth and gestured upward with it. "That is what they call 'anti-gravity'. I read about it in the May issue of Poplah Science, and --"

Bob snapped his newspaper so loud it sounded like a firecracker. Everett stopped in mid-sentence, returned his pipe to his mouth, and puffed quietly.

THE END


© 2012 Rick Grehan

Bio: Rick Grehan is a software engineer at Dell/EqualLogic in Nashua, NH. He is also a contributing editor for InfoWorld Magazine. (You can find a bibliography of his InfoWorld work here: Infoworld articles by Rick Grehan.) He has written for computer magazines for many years, having started as a technical editor for BYTE Magazine back in the 80's.
Mr. Grehan's story The Lawnmower That Knew appeared in the August 2012 edition of Aphelion.

E-mail: Rick Grehan

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