Amtrak runs a route between my original home, St. Louis, and my adopted home, Chicago. That route is called the Lincoln Service. I’ve ridden it quite a lot in the five years since I moved to Chicago. It is always awful. Here’s another true story from my travels.
It is nighttime, and I am miserable.
The train has pulled over to the side rail, and it’s forgotten how to get back over to where it belongs. We had to let a freight train pass, but it flashed by twenty minutes ago. Why the hell are we still sidelined? It’s 10:00 on a Sunday night, I have to work in the morning, I’m still two hours from the city and another 30 minutes from my apartment, and the whole train car smells like a microwaved cheeseburger.
The fact that the cheeseburger is mine does not make things better. It does the opposite of that.
I don’t know why we’re not moving. The guy behind me doesn’t know why we’re not moving. The woman screaming, “Why aren’t we moving?” doesn’t know why we’re not moving. No one knows why we’re not moving. The conductors probably know, but we haven’t seen any of them for twenty minutes. They’re either hiding from the woman in the front row, or they’ve been slaughtered by some weird train bandit who left the train and the passengers alone and is therefore not very good at his job.
We’re in some nondescript field in a nondescript county in the north of Illinois, a nondescript state. It’s dark outside, so we’re spared the madness-inducing view of grass and a level horizon in every direction, except there’s lightning, too, no rain, just lightning, and every time it splinters through the sky, the train washes in bright, blue light, and if one were to look outside at those moments, one would see the expanse of grass and nothing else at all, and one would surely go insane and set off on a rampage through the train, using the small emergency fire extinguisher as a bludgeon.
I hate riding the train.
I lean my forehead against the window and try not to think about how many of some former passenger’s hepatitis germs might be on it because the glass is cool, and my impatience is warm. I console myself by remembering that hepatitis is a virus, so the odds of contracting it from a windowpane are pretty low. I feel something hard under my temple. It feels like mucus would feel after someone sneezed it on a cold glass and left it to harden.
It doesn’t matter. Death by cold is becoming a welcome option.
The loudspeaker crackles to life. We bolt upright, all of us, all fifty or so people in the car, we sit up straight and wait for an announcement. The static crackles, and finally, we hear a voice say, Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for your patience. We—
The loudspeaker cuts out. The voice is gone. The static goes dead. The passengers groan. I imagine someone tugging on the announcer’s sleeve with sheer panic in his eyes, mouthing, Don’t tell them what’s wrong, this is a tightly confined space and people are panicky, are you insane? before taking the microphone and ripping it out of the wall.
We wait for the speaker to crackle back on. We give it a few seconds. We hope. We pray.
We give up.
I rest my head back down against the glass and peer out the window into the dark night. I’ve been a little too preoccupied with my bag o’ cheeseburger to look out the window until now, and I’m surprised to see little red lights winking at me from the horizon.
Lightning cracks through the sky and gives us a split second of illumination.
The red lights are from the windmills. The windmills are watching us.
There’s a sea of windmills, a whole ocean of them, winking and blinking silently in the fields. I peer across the aisle and out through the window on the other side of the train. There are red lights that way, too. We’re surrounded by dozens and dozens and dozens of gigantic, white windmills, and the only part of them we can see is the little red light atop each one, glowing and fading, glowing and fading, like a heartbeat, and suddenly Don Quixote doesn’t seem like such an imbecile.
I wish we’d get moving.
I turn back to my own window just as another bolt of lightning scatters across the clouds, and in the blue light, I see something outside the train. I gasp audibly, loud enough to draw a look from the teenage girl across the aisle. I stare at her with wide eyes, like I want to know if she saw it, too, but of course she didn’t see it, how could she, she’s sitting on the other side of the train. And the gremlin was right beneath my window.
It is a gremlin, I swear it. Clinging to the side of the train. The little devil is green and scaly, with a plated spine, huge, black eyes, and razor-sharp teeth. He’s perched right outside my window, and he’s leering at me.
I briefly wonder if I’ve gone insane.
Five years from now, I’ll be writing about this encounter for my column in a popular Internet site called Dumb White Husband, and I’ll know that people will think I’ve veered this memoir straight into the realm of fiction, and I’ll be almost positive that they’ll accuse me of trying to write a grossly lame Twilight Zone knockoff, and I’ll consider not writing this particular story at all, because no one will believe it. But write it or not, that future Clayton won’t be able to change the fact that it happened, I just saw a gremlin on the train, and now it’s pitch black again, and I can’t see the gremlin anymore, and I am terrified.
I press my hands and face against the glass, searching for some sign of movement. I trust that Amtrak has invested in tempered glass windows, though maybe I shouldn’t be so cavalier. I also have no idea how strong gremlins are, and tempered or not, it’s possible the little demon could come crashing through the window into my face, slicing me to ribbons with its claws and with the shards of broken glass. It doesn’t matter. I have to see the gremlin again. I have to know I really saw it.
But it is dark outside. It is quiet. And the winking red eyes of the windmills provide very little help. They only leer at me from the darkness.
I relax a bit. There’s no way you just saw a gremlin, I tell myself. That’s absurd. It’s beyond absurd. So I take a deep breath and settle back into my seat.
Which is when another bolt of lightning strikes. And in the flash, I see a flurry of movement and a forked, green tale whip across the window. I jump in my seat and press back up against the window, just in time to see the creature disappear under the bottom of the train.
A chill runs down my spine as I realize the likely reason for the train’s breakdown and the crew’s silence.
Is Amtrak part of a gremlin conspiracy? Maybe. Or maybe they’re just hapless victims, unable to alter course or schedule, therefore making themselves easy prey for the demons of northern Illinois.
Or maybe gremlins are just attracted by the smell of microwaved cheeseburgers.
Whatever the case, consider yourself warned. Gremlins are real, and no one on the Lincoln Service is safe.