Study Guide

A Long Way from Chicago Chapter 5

By Richard Peck

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Chapter 5

The Phantom Brakeman (1933)

  • The next year, Joey has already turned 13 and is too cool to be seen walking next to his sister when they go into town.
  • And besides, Mary Alice has become obsessed with the idea of becoming the next Shirley Temple, and she carries her tap shoes with her absolutely everywhere.
  • The kids head on over to The Coffee Pot to catch up on the local news and get some soda.
  • A woman pulls up and demands her daughter's wages, but Mrs. Cripe, the owner, says that she already paid the girl 15 cents today.
  • The mother yells and shakes the girl until she hands over the money, and then she says that she'll beat her that night.
  • Joey and Mary Alice have lost their taste for the soda, and as they walk home, they talk about the girl—Vandalia Eubanks—and how she's 17 but looks 12 (because she's so starved).
  • That night, they stand outside helping Grandma make soup, and she tells them about how there was a train accident a long time ago.
  • A brakeman died, but he's been seen around there ever since…and this ghost story totally spooks the kids out.
  • Joey has a hard time sleeping after he hears this story, and in the middle of the night, he hears a sound like someone is crying in Mary Alice's room.
  • When he confronts her, Mary Alice says that she found a puppy outside named Skipper, and that's what he's hearing. Then, she tells him to go away before he can even see the puppy.
  • The next day, Vandalia's mom comes up to the house and demands to have her daughter back, pointing the finger at Mary Alice and saying that she took Vandalia in.
  • Grandma tells Vandalia's mom to get on out of there, and she doesn't say anything else about the situation after she leaves. She doesn't even question Mary Alice.
  • Then, later that day, a man comes to their house and says that his name is Junior Stubbs and that he's an insurance salesman.
  • He knows that Vandalia is staying at their house and hands Joey a card to give to her—one that tells her that he loves her and wants her to run away with him, and to break free of her awful mother.
  • When he can, Joey passes Mary Alice the note from Junior Stubbs and tells her that he'll be in the cobhouse tonight waiting for Vandalia.
  • Things get even more complicated when Junior Stubbs' parents show up later, saying that Vandalia is trying to steal their son away and accusing Grandma of helping her in the diabolical scheme.
  • As they're talking, they all hear a noise from the house. Grandma and everyone else walk over to find Vandalia's mom on a ladder trying to climb into Mary Alice's window. Now, this is just getting ridiculous.
  • Vandalia's mom ends up falling from the ladder, and the Stubbs get up to leave before things get even weirder. Then, Grandma tells Vandalia's mom to get off her property.
  • By that night, the whole town knows about what's going on—how Vandalia is holed up at Grandma's house, Junior Stubbs is waiting in the cobhouse to take her away, and so on.
  • Because everyone assumes that the couple will get on the train and elope, a bunch of townspeople decide to hang out at The Coffee Pot (which is by the train station) to watch. Talk about a bunch of busybodies.
  • But as the train pulls up, everyone is distracted by a figure in the distance…the figure of the ghostly brakeman, who is shrouded in black and holding a lantern in the mist.
  • While the townspeople are watching the brakeman and freaking out because ghosts are real, Vandalia and Junior take their chance and scramble onto the train.
  • That night at Grandma's house, Grandma asks Joey if he got everything squared away.
  • And he did—he put Grandpa Dowdel's old black coat and the lantern back where they belong, in the cobhouse.

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