The End of the Line
Darkness shrouded Detroit as Captain Andrew Bird’s train rattled out of Michigan Central Station, bound north: the last hundred miles between Paris and home. He had walked up half a dozen cars before choosing this one for its sparse population. A handful of other passengers were scattered among the blue plush seats, but not crowded so close that he’d be forced into conversation on account of his uniform. He took a seat by the window, and set his bulging rucksack up beside him, to reinforce his position.
Outside, the black river slipped by until it was swallowed up by the night, replaced by the bare, vanquished fields of early autumn. Beyond them, the scattered lights of small towns gleamed and vanished on the even horizon. His mind was a perfect blank, apart from the occasional scraps that sometimes blew through it: a nameless girl in a sky blue dress with a collar of white lace, a fresh batch of transmissions carefully typed in red ink, the muddy wheels of a motorcycle spinning backwards as the bike picked up speed. His heart whirred like a broken motor.
The lights flickered, and flickered again.
Suddenly Captain Bird was sitting ramrod straight, at full attention.
They had blinked an S.O.S.
As he had been trained, Captain Bird instantly took an inventory of the situation. In the seat across from him, a young woman in dark red dress slept, curled around her grip like a dying man. Behind her, an old farmer, his hat forgotten in his lax hands, stared out the opposite window. The handful of other passengers all rested with convincing fearlessness. The distress signal must have come from someone with access to the train’s electric system, which wouldn’t be located this far back.
Captain Bird rose.
The lights flickered: “Captain.”
At the sudden revelation that he could be seen, Captain Bird froze, then sank back down into the protection of his seat. He searched briefly in his bag, removed the key to his mother’s house, then tapped on the black window, loud enough to carry the length of the car: “What is your position?”
The lights flared, subsided, and answered: “I’m here.” Then, “I died here.”
If the Army knew how sick he was, the lights transmitted, they hadn’t told him: just given him a medical discharge and sent him back to Michigan. Or maybe it was the trip that had killed him: long days of seasickness that irritated some hidden injury, or an unlucky jolt on any of a half-dozen trains. At any rate, like so many, he hadn’t made it home, although he got closer than most. Some thirty miles south of Caseville, he had died on the train.
Like any good intelligence officer, Captain Bird caught the inconsistency immediately. “This train doesn’t go to Caseville,” he tapped, now more quietly.
“It did,” the lights insisted. “They pulled it out of the line when I died, and then switched it to another track. So now I can’t go back.”
“I’m sorry,” Captain Bird tapped.
“How is it going?” the lights asked. “Over there?”
“The war is over,” Captain Bird tapped.
The lights glowed steadily, taking it in.
Captain Bird lifted his hand to ask the young soldier’s name, but then thought better of it.
As he left the train an hour later, the lights began to flicker again. Captain Bird averted his eyes, and tried not to understand the messages in the shadows.
His mother gave him the train map, not with any hope that it might help him heal, but that it might make him forget, with a trip to the city, or north to shoot bears or hook helpless fish. Captain Bird planned his attack in broad daylight, scribbling furiously as his companions downed their third whiskey, or got up to dance, or commented on the scenery. Not once in the course of any of the parties, or church services, or country rides, did anyone ask him what he had in his hand, or what he was doing with it. This didn’t bother him. It was further proof of his growing conviction that the entire town had fallen under some kind of spell, dancing merrily on in spite of all the available evidence, oblivious to the shrill but faint warning sirens that rang constantly in the distance.
The map, at least, made sense. About forty miles south of his own lakeshore town, the tracks branched. One set of rails led from Detroit to his own home station and then climbed north. The other curved into the thumb of the great handprint, terminating at Caseville. His training was excellent, and had included an entire unit on the strategic value of a single man. The map was the only additional piece of intelligence he needed.
It was Christmas in the city when he returned to Michigan Central Station. Everywhere lights twinkled, and shimmered, and glittered. He was provisioned and prepared to linger for days, fading in and out of the shadows and crowds in the great hall while he waited for his train, but as soon as he stepped out among the platforms, the lights were unmistakable. They blinked more slowly now, as if the strength of the operator was failing, The third car from the engine, on a track bound again for Captain Bird’s own station.
On the train, hurtling through the darkness, his fellow passengers saw only his uniform. They didn’t notice which kind it was.
“I’m sorry,” he said gently. “We’re switching at Bridgeport. If you want to go on, you’ll have to move back.”
He carried a sleeping boy, trailed by the boy’s mother and a dozen other passengers, into the fourth car, when he settled the child gently on a blue velvet bench. Then he returned to the second car, where a truculent mechanic in a dirty gray jacket still held his ground.
“I’m not going past Bridgeport,” the mechanic announced to the otherwise empty car.
Captain Bird gazed back at him. After a moment, the mechanic rose and walked quickly down the length of the train.
Captain Bird followed him, stopping in the third car to give some encouragement to a young woman with jet black hair and bright red lips, wearing a blue dress styled with Naval details. She had been elaborately collecting her magazine and shiny black handbag since he made his announcement.
“I’m sorry, Miss,” he said.
The flickering lights glinted and disappeared into the midnight of her hair. As he guided her across the rattling connector to the next car, she gripped his arm above the elbow. “Thank you for your service,” she whispered, as if it were a new dance.
Once she was safely inside, Captain Bird stepped back into the wind. He crossed back to the third car, and unfastened the accordion bridge to reveal the great hook and eye that held the cars together. Then he knelt over the speeding, snow-covered tracks, and uncoupled them.
In his warm perch high above the heaving engine, the engineer sank back like a giant child into Captain Bird’s arms, undone by the same chloroform Captain Bird’s nephew had used to kill butterflies and katydids all summer.
Taking the stranded soldier home was a simple matter of flipping a single switch. As in enemy territory, Captain Bird couldn’t depend on an operator to do it for him. When the first red and white painted signals for Bridgeport appeared, he braked his small train. Confident that the abandoned cars behind him protected him at least for the moment from a rear attack, he walked the half-mile along the snowy ties to the changing station. There, straining against the steel and slipping in the snow, he turned the tracks to Caseville despite their screams. Then he walked back to the waiting engine.
The train map had told him everything: the next train scheduled on the Caseville track had left Detroit twelve minutes behind his. It was solidly trapped beyond the stalled cars he had left. He could take the engine to its top speed, without braking through any intermediate stations, with little risk of civilian casualties.
As the stars flickered in the black sky overhead, the train roared through the simple country stations, pinpoints on the horizon that grew to blinding size, briefly engulfed him, and just as quickly vanished, leaving only a pair of silver threads that seemed to lead on endlessly over the blue snow that blanketed the blur of forests and fields.
A few miles outside Caseville, Captain Bird began to brake, slowing the train to a crawl as it approached the line’s final station. Just beyond the old depot, he brought the engine to a halt, leaving the cars flush with the low platform. Then he burst out of the engine room, fleeing for the cover of a line of black trees on the far side of a white field.
He didn’t turn back until he reached the shelter of their branches. When he did, the train was completely dark. The lights of the depot gave no explanation. They simply flared for a moment, and then went out.