the midnight train
When he was a little boy in the countryside, many nights would be spent alone in his dark bedroom, mostly covered by heavy bed-sheets, with slanted moonlight semi-illuminating his freckled face. His parents worked late, or they got home too tired to talk, falling asleep several rooms over before the sun had fully set. Most nights he felt like he was the only human being on the prairie, the only human being in the country, in the world.
When he had nightmares, or he was worried, or he couldn’t sleep, he learned to lie there alone, and found comfort in the one consistent thing – the train that clattered down the railroad tracks by his house always around midnight, whistling and echoing through the silence of the night. A passenger train, he learned, a long-distance one that shot through the country from one end to another.
The train, to him, was hundreds of stories held delicately inside twenty steel train cars, rattling through the night – hundreds of pasts, presents, and futures, a mosaic of human emotion encased in metal – all, for the moment, passing by his house, his life, all for a moment, part of him, illuminating a small invisible corner of the countryside. He liked to imagine the stories each and every one of the passengers could tell him, liked to imagine their childhoods and their likes and dislikes, pleasures and worries, liked to imagine where they were going and why they were going there, their friends and family and fears and aspirations. He made friends with them in his head, liked to imagine that maybe one or two of them, someone who wasn’t asleep or reading or talking with a neighbor or peering out another window, looked up at his house too, and wondered about its inhabitants. Inexplicably, the train and its carrying of those hundreds of stories made him feel a little less alone on those nights.
There was no train station in the little town he lived in, but he maintained his fascination, running down to the tracks after school when he could, sometimes with friends, but usually alone. He would throw his bag to one side and sit in the tall grass hugging his legs, waiting – sometimes only for a few minutes, often longer, until at last a passenger train would appear from afar, first as a distant, strong and calling whistle, then as a whisper of smoke, then its lights and its familiar rattle and clank as the twenty metal boxcars would clatter rapidly past, throwing up a terrific wind that made his hair fly everywhere; into the sky, his face, his shoulders, would make the grass around him dance spectacularly, but he would only grin and wave, wave at the hundreds of human stories inside rumbling past his little town. Course, it went by too fast for him, the little boy sitting on the field over the tracks, to see anyone’s faces, but sometimes he would imagine he caught a glimpse of another person waving back.
When he turned sixteen, his parents sent him off to a boarding school far away in a distant city. The night before he was bound to leave, he snuck out of his bedroom, padding softly down the stairs and out into the field. Sneakers untied, into the field, into the grass, as the midnight train ran past, a blur of light and metal, in all its strength and glory – thirty seconds, then the boy turned his head and watched the light shrink and vanish in a blink of light on the horizon, the train letting out a final faint farewell whistle.
The next day, he was gone.
He was gone for many years, studying aboard at an immense boarding school in the city, a flare of bright blonde hair amongst the glistening halls and tables, a short, wiry figure hurrying from classroom to classroom day after day.
There it was never dark, there it was never quiet. There he was surrounded by people, more people than he had ever met for so many years of his childhood on the countryside.
There, there were no railroad tracks to run down to, no lone whistle of a train to listen for, no strong, steady rumbling at midnight as it passed by outside the window.
The boy, older now, shifts and turns in his bed, around him his dorm mates doing the same. He hasn’t spoken to his parents in weeks.
The boy, so much older now, closes his eyes and listens, can almost hear past the buzzing of the city outside, the cars and the voices to somewhere far past the horizon, where one train as dutifully as ever passes his countryside home, passes where he used to weave the stories held inside those moving compartments until they would come alive to him in the dark of the night.