Sometime in the 1940s, a school bus in Horton, Texas, was hit by a train after stalling on the tracks. One week later, a truck stalled in the same spot. As a train bared down on the truck, the driver braced for impact, but the truck slowly rolled down off the crossing, just seconds before the train would have hit it. When the man got out of his truck, he noticed what looked like the fingerprints of children in the dust on his tailgate.
“I’m not pushing another fucking car,” Mildred said as a Chevy Volt pulled up to the railroad crossing. “And these electronic ones they have now … I didn’t sign up for that.”
“We didn’t sign up for anything,” Evelyn said. “We died.”
“And it’s like I’ve been saying for eighty years now: if we died, why can’t they?”
“Look, it’s like a compulsion,” Frances said. “We’ve never not pushed a car. Maybe it’s a thing we must do, until one day we’re released from this universe.”
“You believe in mumbo-jumbo about fate,” Mildred said. “The only reason we think we have to do it is because we’ve told ourselves we have to do it.”
“Mumbo-jumbo,” Frances said. “We’re ghosts. Of course I believe in the ‘mumbo-jumbo.’”
“I’m just saying. Maybe this is the one we let get hit.”
“I kind of agree,” Doris said. “And it’s not even like they’d get hit. If a train actually did come, they’d just turn the car on and drive off.”
“Unless it stalls,” Walter, the bus driver, said. “We’re only here because I stalled it.”
“You don’t even help push,” Mildred said. “You make the kids do all the work.”
“The legend’s about child hands, not adult hands. It’d be wrong to help.”
“There’s only a legend because of us,” Mildred said, “and the only reason you weren’t part of it is that you spent the first five years crying about how you killed us.”
“I was sad. And by the time I wasn’t sad, we had the whole legend kind of figured out.”
“Leave him alone,” Evelyn said. “He’s got enough grief.”
“Eighty years,” Mildred replied. “Eighty years is plenty of time to get over something.”
“Does time exist for us?” Frances asked. “Once you’re dead, it doesn’t matter what day it is. Or year. Or century.”
“I don’t know,” Doris said. “I think Mildred’s saying some of what we’re all thinking. Why do we have this obligation to save people who ultimately don’t need to be saved?”
“Because it’s what we do,” Evelyn said.
“And who are we to know who does and doesn’t need saved?” Frances added. “Maybe we are saving them, but in a different kind of way.”
“I’m not pushing,” Mildred said. “There. I said it.”
“Me either,” Doris said. “Not if Mildred’s not.”
The car was still parked on the tracks. The driver—a man who looked to be in his mid-twenties—had his phone out and was recording. From outside of the car, none of the ghost children could tell what he was saying, though if they’d wanted to find out, they could have. But after all these decades, eavesdropping wasn’t much fun anymore. You’d occasionally get an interesting snippet of revelation—none of the children would know how to swear if they hadn’t listened to everyone who stopped on the tracks over the years, for instance—but ever since the advent of cell phone cameras, you’d mostly just get someone narrating a video about their encounter. The Horton railroad crossing was a popular place for ghost hunters.
“We can talk about this another time,” Evelyn said. “There’s a car that needs pushing.”
“Let’s unionize,” Mildred said. “Collectively decide that we’re done with this.”
“It’d be a boring life if we didn’t push cars,” Frances said. “A flat line, with nothing to interrupt this mundanity.”
“Again with the philosophy,” Mildred said. “You two just go have fun pushing that car,” and after she said it, Evelyn and Frances made their way toward the Volt, while Doris stayed with her. This wasn’t the first time Mildred had expressed frustration with the ritual, but it was the first time that someone else had spoken up as well. “Thanks for siding with me, Doris.”
“I know that we don’t get tired in the normal sense, but I’m tired of having to float over there.”
“Uhh, hey,” Evelyn shouted from over at the car. “I don’t think the two of us can do this alone.” She and Frances were behind the car, pressing their tiny fingers into the rear bumper, but it wasn’t budging. “Maybe part of this whole thing is that we have to work together. Teamwork, you know.”
“How about you show some teamwork by coming back over here then,” Mildred said, “because we’re not helping today.”
In the distance, they heard a train whistle. Doris looked visibly shaken. “Okay, Mildred. We’ve made our point. But maybe we should go push, just in case.”
“What, in case this guy’s car stalls too?”
“You never know when that’ll happen,” Walter said.
“Go away,” Mildred said. “You’re the real worst part of this. You could have just let us get off the bus and we’d be fine.”
“Well, we’d definitely be dead by now,” Doris said. Mildred gave her a look, and she stopped talking. The train whistle sounded again, closer this time, but still too far away to see the train. The car remained on the tracks, and Evelyn and Frances kept pushing, but to no avail. The man in the car was still holding the phone camera in front of his face, his mouth moving as he likely narrated the history of the tracks and what he anticipated would happen, seemingly oblivious to the train that was approaching. It kept getting closer, until they could see it on the horizon.
“Please,” Evelyn said. “Help us.” Doris glanced around, then drifted over to where the other two girls were. Mildred shook her head.
“You might give in,” she said, “but I’m not. I’m standing my ground here. He’s going to drive away—stop wasting your time.” The train was even closer now, going over the crossing a few blocks east, and the car still hadn’t moved. Doris had joined the other two in pushing, it wasn’t working—the car still sat there on the track, and the train moved closer. “He’s going to move,” Mildred said one more time. The train came even closer, until it was right there, right upon the car. Mildred felt frozen—the other three girls kept their fingers on the back of the Volt until there was no more Volt to push.
Justin Carter is a sportswriter living in Des Moines, Iowa. His poems/stories have appeared in The Adroit Journal, Booth, The Journal, Sonora Review, and Sycamore Review. He holds a PhD from the University of North Texas.
Check out HFR’s book catalog, publicity list, submission manager, and buy merch from our Spring store. Follow us on Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube.