Timmy isn’t a bad boy. This is very clear in his mind. Momma asks him, now you don’t want to be a bad boy do you? And he knows the answer is no. Really he doesn’t though. He wants to be good. But he can’t sleep. It isn’t summer but the sheets keep sticking to his skin. It’s just too hot. He thinks about the brook behind the house, and how much cooler he would be if he went swimming. He starts thinking about it after dark, well after dark, when Momma and Daddy have turned off the radio for the night. By the time they’re quiet all he can think of is the cool water.
So he climbs out of bed, quietly. His plan is complete: a swim, a cooling dip, then back in bed. He has pictured every step with the clarity of any six year old. He will do this and no one will ever know. No one will call him a bad boy.
Outside the world is not hot and Timmy’s plans explode like the poof of his breath in the air. How could the house be so hot and the outside so cold? He doesn’t understand but he hops from one foot to the other, not making sense of it but still headed toward the brook. He has a vague notion of March and that maybe the wood stove made the house too hot. His mind is suddenly fuzzy, the clear plans of a second ago seem distant.
He takes another step toward the brook and then he sees the light. A circle of bright yellow light coming toward him from just over the bank, a train he realizes. It pulls up to the other side of the brook as if there were train tracks there, perfectly silent. His mind springs to life, memorizing rivets and gears, watching the moonlight paint the black engine. Light splashes over passenger cars, people seated in fancy dress and plain clothes, all of them looking forward. Old men, young men, women and babies in another car, looking forward as if the train always ran through his backyard when he’s never seen it here before, but then, he knows in a way that even a six year old must know, that there isn’t another train like this, not anywhere.
The engine comes to a halt with a shrill hiss of steam. He’s never imagined anything so fascinating, anything as magical and scary. A conductor leans out, a man in a fine black suit, formal with a brass watch fob looped over his modest belly.
“Good evening, Timmy. Fancy a ride on the night train?” The man has no accent, no hint of malice in his voice, and though Timmy knows he should be wary, the train beckons to him.
“How long?” His squeaks out the question, sounding small and unsure.
“Well now, some people they ride for a long time, years and years and years. But a young man like yourself, I suspect you’d ride just a little while. Just step into the brook, and I’ll get your hand from this side.” His hand comes out, clean with trimmed finger nails, it’s a trustworthy hand on a trustworthy man, but oddly Timmy doesn’t trust him.
“I’d come back right here? To Momma and Daddy?”
The faces in the windows turn to him, the heads moving in perfect unison, mouths dropping open. Their empty jaws seem too wide and somehow toothless. He’s asked the right question, but somehow they think wrong of him. He can feel the disapproval coming out of their black eyes.
“Hmmm, can’t say I know if you’d come back right here. Maybe near here.”
“And Momma and Daddy?”
“Oh we’d get you a pair. The train’s real good about that.” He chuckles at the end, like he’s just told a joke, but Timmy doesn’t think so. He doesn’t think any of this funny at all. He wants a ride, oh yes, but he doesn’t trust this fancy man and his opened mouth passengers.
“Train’s got to go.” The conductor checks his regulator, a fine watch. Timmy can see the image on the outside, a train over shadowed by an hourglass. “Come on then, step into the brook Timmy and climb aboard. It’s the ride of a life time.”
“You sure, son? Might be awhile before we get back to pick you up.”
“No.” Timmy sweats now, his feet still cold on the ground. He wonders if a fever has come over him, he must get back inside to Momma. She’ll know what to do. And yet, the train, the pretty train he so wants to ride. He feels himself take a step to the brook, the frozen grass sharp on his bare feet. The pain brings him back to his senses, and he shakes his head, then turns and runs into the house, tears streaming down his face. He does not look back, does not see the conductor smile in a way that should be kindly, does not see the passengers turn to face forward again. The night train moves on, souls to collect, stops to make.
There isn’t much call for steam engine operators in the world, theme parks, national parks, a handful of zoos. He’s lucky to have landed here, in Florida, where the cold doesn’t seep into his old bones the way it did that frosty March morning before he got so sick. The fever dream has never left him, the one where that big black locomotive came out of the darkness and he was so tempted to take a ride.
Only here he is, in Florida, on a night that’s hotter than most of the summer days of his youth, and something woke him. Something he can’t quite place. He slides open the glass door to the patio, letting the humidity roll into the house. Shuts it, thinking of his wife and how uneasily she sleeps these days. The change is on her, and he worries about that. But still, it wasn’t what woke him. Something else, something familiar but not.
Then he hears it again, the low whistle of an engine. All smoke and fire, a full head of steam. He knows the sound at once. Not an engine, but that engine. And there it is, in his backyard, despite the fence, without any tracks. A gleaming black piece of machinery steams to stop just ahead of him, leaving the place where the conductor stands just a few feet away.
“Soul train needs an engineer, Timmy.” The same old man leans out, the same shirt and suit, aged and faded but impossibly not any more aged or faded.
His mouth gapes. He doesn’t know how to respond to this horrific tempting offer.
“You’ve done well for yourself. Don’t you think it’s time you took on a real train?”
The engine purrs at him, like a seductive cat. He wants to run his hands over it but he knows they’ll burn. He’s had enough of those burns to remember the sting, but then how many trains run without tracks, in his backyard, after midnight, in Florida? It’s all impossible so he reaches out to stroke the metal. There is no burn, no pain, heat yes, agony no.
“She likes you.” The conductor grins, a mouth with too many teeth but friendly just the same. “You should feel honored.”
Then all at once he does. He remembers trains upon trains, drawing them with waxy crayons and polishing models. Every train he every drove, pushing the engines to their limits. None of them were ever this good, this enticing, and he’s proud that she likes him. His hand wraps around the metal bar, hangs on for a minute one foot on the yard, one on that first polished step.
For a second he thinks of his wife, the grandchildren. Idly his mind turns to work and the things he meant to do tomorrow. Then his foot reaches off the ground, touching that next step. His pajamas change into engineer’s coveralls, heavy denim without the grease streaks and stains he expects. A pressed shirt, striped in white and light blue, comes over him and around his head a cap presses his hair down. Everything else is forgotten.
“Welcome to the night train.” The conductor smiles.