ModelStory: The Cell – A True Story

“This building is alive,” says Tully. “It talks to you, and it doesn’t say nice things.”

cell

He was speaking of the imposing concrete structure that serves as tunnel portal and ventilation plant for the Nichols Tunnel, which pierces the canyon wall at Herbst Junction and allows the FCFL to reach Flagstaff.

The building, plus a one-room depot cum Park Ranger office and a wrinkle-tin stand where Navajo artists sell turquoise jewelery, make up the totality of architecture in the tiny junction.

Tully Luiskama is a longtime FCFL conductor and the railroad’s resident storyteller and folklorist. Each year around Halloween he leads a tour of the building, touching on the technical specifications while espousing his own, less-verifiable version of its history.

This year’s tour was a special treat – it seems one of Tully’s trainees recently had a rough night in the place and decided to discontinue his employment. That is to say, the kid disappeared.

A little background:

The building houses immense blowers that draw out diesel exhaust and flush the five-mile tunnel with clean air, making it livable for train crews and their deep-breathing locomotives. There are also big pumps that continually remove the water that collects in the tunnel. The interior is as you’d expect: Industrial gray machinery stitched in place by safety-yellow railings and catwalks. There is a machine shop, pallets of maintenance supplies on the concrete floor, and walls lined with giant tools.

The place emits constant noise: The hum of electricity, the groan of motors, the creaking of pipes, and always, always – the howl of moving air.

It is almost always deserted.

But, wedged as an afterthought in a corner of the first floor, is a windowless room with several bunks installed decades ago for overnighting train crews. The bunks are still occasionally pressed into service when crews run out of hours here, 42 miles short of the comfortable accommodations at Salvation Point.

I think the building would technically be called a “head house.” Railroaders simply call it “The Cell.”

Now, about the kid.

I don’t know how Tully knows all of this, and it sounds pretty far-fetched to me, but he swears this is true:

Tully was the conductor aboard the Phoenix local one day last week. He knew his crew would die on the clock at Herbst Junction and pass the night in the head house. So he spent the afternoon telling his conductor trainee, Dustin, the catalogue of tall tales that have grown up around The Cell.

“Now this one I know is true,” Tully said, leaning close to the kid and giving the engineer, Roy, a playful wink. “Not so long ago – late ’90s – guy spends the night in The Cell. Hears all kinds of racket middle of the night – howling, clunking, whatnot.”

He paused and took a bite of a sandwich, continued with his mouth full.

“So he thinks it’s something going on in the ventilation shafts or whatever. Gets up and goes up on these big catwalks they have there, starts poking around, taking off grates and stuff.”

Tully swallowed and shook his head in pity.

“Get’s sucked in.” He patted Dustin on the shoulder, laughing. “Get’s no foolin’ sucked into the duct! Big fans in those ducts – BIG fans. So there’s meat all over. Whole tunnel was shut down for a week while they cleaned that up. Remember that Roy?”

Roy nodded. He and Tully had refined this act over their two decades sharing locomotive cabs. Roy’s job was to lend credence to the tale by nodding somberly when prompted.

“So why does a sane man go leaning half his body into a giant air duct?” Tully mused, chewing another bite. “Cause that building makes people do things, son, that’s why. It’s dark in there, lonely, and all that machinery and wind and trains comin’ through? The building is alive. It talks to you, and it doesn’t say nice things.”

It was one of his favorite lines, and he always paused a long time after delivering it.

“Truth is,” he continued, striking an authoritative tone. “There have been exactly one dozen men who’ve disappeared from that building since it opened in 1934. Sucked into ventilation shafts and got the food processor treatment I don’t know, but the disappearances are historical fact. I’ve researched it.”

He had done no such thing, but he had told his stories enough that he believed many of them to be fact. Besides, spooking the kid was a small vengeance for the headache he had given Tully and Roy all day.

Rolling out from Salvation Point that morning, Dustin boasted incessantly about his exploits with booze and girls, which grew immediately tiresome. When he donned a set of ear buds, produced a pack of cigarettes and stepped out onto the front platform of the locomotive, the veteran railroaders didn’t protest. He was breaking half a dozen rules, but they were thankful for the quiet and let him go.

Outside of Phoenix, they were put in the hole for nearly two hours while BNSF trains occupied the interchange. Dustin passed the time hurling ballast at birds, buildings and the locomotive.

It was early afternoon before they finally got to turning the plastics plant, which was always a mess and a puzzle, and Tully knew better than to ask the kid to help keep track of the manifest. Instead he simply told the kid to stay out of the way, which he didn’t. Twice Roy was sure he’d killed him as he scampered across the tracks in front of cars the engineer was maneuvering.

When their train was finally assembled and ready to head back north, Dustin was nowhere to be found. It was Tully who came across him at last, standing in the plant office outside the reception window, showing the provocatively dressed office assistant – approximately Dustin’s own age and temperament – a spider web tattooed across his skinny belly.

Tully was too angry to speak. He glared at the kid and jerked his thumb toward the door.

So on the way home they started in on the ghost stories, it being nearly Halloween and all, and were enjoying their effect. The kid’s tough, defiant veneer was gone and he sat subdued, listening.

“One that gets me,” Tully said, “and this one I know is true cause I’ve seen the marks, is the old guy back in the ’50s who spent a night pickaxing away at one of the walls because he thought someone was buried in there, trying to get out.”

Roy’s eyes remained focused on the track ahead, but he nodded in agreement. With his hands he casually made a motion like the swinging of a pick.

“Crew showed up in the morning and found him swinging away, all bug-eyed and foaming at the mouth,” Tully went on. “He refused to leave, wouldn’t stop swinging that pick, so they kept on to Salvation Point and sent the sheriff back for him. By the time he got there, the old man was gone. Burrowed a hole right through that wall, left a worn-out pickaxe leaning there, and nobody ever saw him again.”

Roy glanced at Dustin for a split second, then stared again out the windshield.

“You can see where they patched the hole if you know where to look.” The engineer deadpanned the only line Tully ever let him say.

During the rest of the trip they recited a few more of the well-worn stories: The man who was driven insane by the noises in The Cell and wandered into the canyon and disappeared. The man who was lured into the tunnel by the ghostly, beguiling voice of a young woman, only to be struck by a train. The man who spent a night in the place and emerged like Moses from Mount Horeb, white-haired and dumb with fear.

Each story started the same: “This one is true.”

“There’s all the predictable theories,” Tully mused, thoughtfully shifting his gaze out the window in his well-practiced way. “Ghosts of people who died building it, Indian burial ground, guys sealed alive in the wet concrete.”

“What do I think?” He shrugged, looking back at Dustin. “Maybe it’s just a noisy building with a darn lot of air moving through it. Plays with people’s minds.”

The sun was low over the canyon walls when they reached Herbst Junction. A steady breeze moved through the canyon, rustling the tall desert grass and putting an October chill in the air.

They had eleven minutes left in their federally mandated twelve-hour shift when Roy eased the nose of the train to a stop a few feet short of the rugged grade crossing. Parked on the gravel road that terminated there sat a FCFL pickup truck with a replacement crew leaning against the front fender.

“Sweet of you to come for us,” said Roy, genuinely surprised. “I was figuring on a night here.”

“They wouldn’t do that to you,” said Bruce. The replacement conductor eyed The Cell with a shiver. “You two get to deadhead home in the truck.”

He turned to Dustin.

“You,” he suppressed a smile. “You spend the night here, and get trained on the Flagstaff turn tomorrow. That train will be here at oh-seven-thirty to pick you up.”

Roy and Tully hid their laughter as they picked up their grips and climbed into the truck.

“So, what, I’m staying here? Alone?” Dustin said.

“You can walk home if you want,” said Tully, flopping into the cab next to the driver. “But the Flagstaff crew will be looking for you in the morning. They’ll bring you home at night. Code for the cell door is … six … six … SIX.”

Roy, Tully and their driver burst into hysterics.

“I’m only kidding,” Tully managed between fits of laughter.

He scribbled the code on a pad mounted to the truck’s dash and handed it to Dustin. He swung his legs into the cab, then smiled, “nighty-night.”

The kid stood for several minutes, angrily watching the truck disappear. The GP40s at the head of the train grumbled, and before long the homebound Phoenix local was clickety-clacking into the growing darkness.

Dustin stood for several more minutes, surveying his surroundings. He was utterly, completely alone.

He swore and kicked at the sand.

It was quickly getting dark and cold, but Dustin was reluctant to retire to The Cell so soon. Instead he slowly approached the building, stopping about five yards away, and paced an arc in front of it, eyeing it from several angles.

The building is alive.” Tully’s words echoed in his mind. “It talks to you, and it doesn’t say nice things.”

It did seem alive. It bellowed and whined and snorted, all noises with a mechanical explanation, but they seemed to grow in intensity with his presence. He felt it – while he studied the building, it studied him.

Ridiculous,” he told himself.

Still, he couldn’t summon the courage to go inside.

He wandered up the tracks a quarter mile to where the mainline crossed the river. He watched the black water for a long time and saw a few die-hard kayakers pass, their headlamp beams dancing in the darkness. He sat on the bridge abutment and listened to the night – insects and birds, a frog croaking somewhere on the bank below. It would have been a restful scene, but the head house was over his shoulder, and he still felt like it was watching him.

As he scanned the canyon wall, he noticed distant campfires begin to flicker in the night. Backpackers on the backcountry trails, eating warm suppers, sharing ghost stories and cold beer.

Stories,” he shook his head. “Dang Tully and his stories.

More stories he didn’t need. But a fire? Fire was friendly and warm and might be pretty good company right now.

He gathered plenty of dry grass and found a few small sticks, which he piled into a campfire twenty or thirty feet from the head house in a depression in the sand. He pulled out his trusty Zippo lighter, ignited its three-inch flame, then bent to touch it to the grass.

Whoosh.

A sudden gust of wind blew the flame out.

He swore.

He stood, perplexed, feeling the air to be sure it was still. He struck the lighter again and reached toward the unlit fire.

Whoosh.

Twice more he attempted to light his little fire, and twice more sudden, short gusts extinguished his flame. They came up as soon as his lighter was close enough to catch the grass, then died as soon as the lighter failed.

He looked up at the building. It groaned.

This building is blowing out my fire.

He pushed the thought from his mind. It was impossible. It was just a building.

Just a noisy building with a darn lot of air moving through it.” Wasn’t that what Tully had said?

He was a rookie and the old heads liked to tell the rookies scary stories. Maybe they even arranged it so he would spend the night here alone. They were initiating him. Tomorrow they would give him heck about his little sleepover and that would be it. The harassment would be unbearable if he freaked out – that was what they wanted.

With that thought, a spark of courage warmed his belly, enough for him to walk straight to the personnel door at the base of the concrete monolith. The door was secured by a lockset with a mechanical keycode – the kind with five metal buttons that have to be pressed in order, sometimes two at a time. He keyed in the code Tully had given him, wrenched on the knob, and the door swung open.

He was nearly blinded by the intense, flourescent lights that clicked on, triggered by his motion.

The giant mechanical room was immaculate, with neatly kept machines, bright yellow stairways and catwalks, and a polished concrete floor. The noise was considerable, but Dustin was pleased to not find the black, damp, pulsating heart he had anticipated.

Relief washed over him as he crossed the threshold and closed the door behind him. This wouldn’t be so bad, he decided.

Yellow stripes marked a walkway across the concrete floor, and a laminated sign taped to the wall pointed the way to “road crew accommodations.”

He followed.

When he reached the bunk room, he located the industrial light switch, flipped it on, and a half dozen flourescent fixtures buzzed to life.

In the bunk room were six sets of steel bunk beds. At the foot of each mattress was a neatly folded blanket, and atop each blanket a pillow in a powder blue case. The bedding was in good repair and reasonably clean – better than the moldy, rodent-nibbled linens he had expected to find.

On one end of the room was a clean stainless steel toilet and shower, shielded by a blue vinyl curtain. Opposite the bunks was a small writing desk and steel chair. On the desk were two battery-powered lanterns.

He walked into the room, and the heavy steel door swung shut behind him. It slammed with a metallic clang, threatening the brief sense of security he had enjoyed.

Picking up one of the lanterns, he located the bunk in the farthest corner, where he could put his back to the wall and see the entire room. He switched on the lantern, doused the overhead light, and moved over to it.

He dropped his duffel on the lower bunk, untied his boots and kicked them off, then stripped to his shorts. Lantern still glowing in his hand, he swung himself into the upper bunk. He arranged the bedding, rested his head on the pillow, spread the blanket over himself, and lay very still. He held the small lantern in his hands for a long time and then, reluctantly, switched it off.

The darkness that surrounded him was more complete than any he had ever experienced. Through it, the building’s noises arose in layers: air moving through huge ductwork, the low vibration of flowing electricity, the howl of straining motors, the muffled splash of water.

He lay in the dark, focusing on the individual noises, giving them names and explanations: Air compressor. Water pump. Loose pipe. Wind. Wind. Wind.

And then clink, clink, clink.

A pickaxe striking concrete.

Clink – breath, clink – breath, clink-clink-clink.

Someone swinging a pickaxe desperately fast.

He fumbled with the lantern, clicked it on, and shone it around the room.

No one. He scanned the walls with the lantern.

His heart skipped.

The orb of light revealed a rough circle in the concrete wall, about eighteen inches wide and three feet from the floor. The wall was worn light gray, the circle slightly darker and smoother.

The patch.

Okay,” he told himself. “This building’s been here a long time, there must have been dozens of changes. A patched hole in the wall isn’t remarkable at all.

He didn’t believe that, and had to spend a long time looking anywhere but at the patch before he was calm enough to attempt sleep again.

Finally he switched the lantern off. The noise did not return, and in time he drifted off to sleep.

Dustin was awakened some time later by the sense of a presence at his back. He realized he was lying on his side, precariously close to the outside edge of the bunk. He also became aware that his head was pounding. It felt like electricity moving through his brain in waves, accompanied by an intense buzzing. The building’s noises were more oppressive than ever. It felt like the constant din was crushing his head. He pressed his fingers to his temples and squinted against the pain, orange bursts appearing before his eyes.

Then the bursts began to take form. Despite the total darkness, he could see, very faintly, as though moonlight was coming through a window. He could make out the silhouettes of the bunks, the small table, his hands. But The Cell, he remembered, had no windows.

The fuzzy orange glow continued to solidify until Dustin made out that each bunk held a slumbering, snoring, faintly shimmering form. He choked back a scream, his eyes wide. The forms were snuggled under the blue blankets that had been folded at the foot of each bed, their ghostly heads resting on the pillows, each emitting a faint orange glow.

Trembling, Dustin counted them in pairs.

Two.

Four.

Six.

Eight.

Ten.

Tully’s words came to him again:

There have been exactly one dozen men who’ve disappeared from that building since it opened in 1934.

He carefully craned his neck to spy the bunk below him.

Eleven.

That meant …

He slowly turned his head, looked over his shoulder, and laid eyes on the presence in his own bunk.

When the Flagstaff local arrived at 7:30 the next morning, they found the personnel door to the head house ajar. Inside the bunk room they found eleven bunks neatly arranged, a blanket folded at the foot of each and a pillow in a blue case atop each blanket. The twelfth bunk, the farthest one on top, in the corner, was a shambles. A corner of the blanket was tucked under the mattress, and the rest hung like a curtain to the floor. The sweat-soaked pillow was pressed into the crevice between the bunk and the wall. Dustin’s duffel, his boots, and his clothes were scattered on the floor.

The crew took a short look around the little junction, then the sheriff was called, and the park rangers, and the usual search ensued.

Of course it turned up nothing.

Dustin’s last paycheck was sent to his mother’s address. Someone cashed it.

Tully hasn’t decided what to tell the newbies now. Maybe he’ll tell them that backpackers still report seeing a skinny man in nothing but boxer shorts, a spider web tattoo on his belly, running wildly down the trails near Herbst Junction. Or perhaps that Dustin hid in the ventilation shafts and is in there today, waiting to be found, perhaps alive. He’s also considering the more sinister notion that Dustin was swallowed by The Cell, and the noises it makes are he and the others struggling to be free.

What do I think?

Maybe it’s just a noisy building with a darn lot of air moving through it.

(Scratchbuilt styrene structure.)

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4 thoughts on “ModelStory: The Cell – A True Story

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