From across the Iowa cornfields, sneaking through the early September night, Luke can hear it coming closer, closer, louder: The death train, starting to slow, easing up on the throttle, going to be a stop tonight.
Cat-like, he goes to his bedroom window, peers through the screen, the outside smells rich and sweet, harvest can't be but a week off.
He shivers and his upper body is getting a case of the chills again and at first he can't look.
Then he looks and...
'Course there's nothing. Can't see the death train, no sir. Death train don't run with lights. Don't have no switchmen with kerosene lanterns, don't have no friendly caboose rip-rollin' along, a big old pot belly stove burning.
Can hear it, though, sure you can, the clackety-clack of its wheels, the breathing heaving fire of its steam-engine belly, the laughter of its death engineer as he gets ready to pull down on the death whistle.
(Listen to it, but don't listen to it for very long, Lukey my boy. Them that listens to it too long is as good as ---
(Don't say that word.
(Is goin' for a ride.)
``What is it, Luke?'' The voice is old and stern, the voice of Uncle John. Luke starts, like he's been caught touching himself where he oughtn't to. He turns toward the light, a single 25-watt bulb hanging on a black cord from the hall ceiling. There he is now, Uncle John, his fat, doughy body filling the doorway to Luke's room. He's rubbing the sleep from his eyes. He's sweating. Always sweating, Uncle John.
``I asked you a question, boy, and I expect an answer. What is it?''
``Nothing,'' Luke says, thinking desperately there must be some way to explain everything without really explaining anything at all.
``Gotta be somethin', it bein' past 1 in the ayem and you kneelin' by your window, son, lookin' out over a cornfield that's as black as pitch. Gotta be somethin'. Nothin' don't look like this. Nothin's nothin. This is somethin'.''
``It was just, just a---''
``Train, Luke? You gonna say train?''
``A crow, uncle. Eating on the corn. Honest, I heard it.''
``Crows don't fly by night. You know better than that, son.''
``You leave him alone, you old fool. You hear me?''
Now Aunt Edna is up. He listens to the softness of her slippers gliding across the upstairs hall floor. He can hear the rustle of her silk nightgown, disturbing the end-of-summer heat that hangs heavy and wet and still, like the YMCA pool on a busy Saturday, up here on the second story.
``Stay out of it, Edna. Just stay out of it.''
Great big hissing, the death train, its death wheels turning slower, the sound of metal brake on metal axle like fingernails on a grammar-school chalkboard.
``What is it, Luke? A nightmare?'' Her voice is soothing, cool, like the autumn that doesn't seem to want to come this year. She never talks to John like that, only him. Only Luke, the child nature never let her have, the child her no-good sister left for her that day she packed her bags and left for California, goodbye and good riddance.
``No, Auntie. It's not a dream.''
``What is it then, Luke?''
``What, Luke? What do you hear?''
Should he say the word? Should he?
Edna pushes past John. John grunts like a hungry old sow. On a Saturday night, after filling his body with bourbon and beer, he might have started in on her, his voice getting filthy and loud and his face turning redder than a freshly painted barn. Might have wished her stinking lousy soul to hell, and Luke's right along with it, the two of them be damned forever.
``Train,'' Luke says.
It's more than John can take. ``Now, you know there ain't no train within 50 miles of here, son. Never has been. Never been no old tracks, no new tracks, no way, no how. County road, and that's it. We been through all that before.''
Aunt Edna has his arm around him. She is gazing out with him over the corn, dark and mysterious and speaking in hushed tones under a sluggish breeze that barely has the strength to reach the farmhouse. Whole summer's been like that, hazy, humid, never-ending. Overhead, there is a rind of moon, and it shines ghostly through the cornfields, over the barn, past the oak grove and beyond to where---
I can hear the death train grinding to a halt.
Death whistle blowing, a low, shivering sound as might come echoing around and behind and through and off of the cracked marble stones in that graveyard out back of St. George's Episcopal Church. Out in that graveyard alone on a late November afternoon, it could be, Uncle John's corn crop long since in, the pumpkins going orange to brown, the air promising flurries, the daylight draining away into the trees, the shadows lengthening.
That kind of day, Matthew said, you might hear it.
Or on the sunniest most perfect day God ever did make -- then, then you might hear it, too.
(Heard it myself there more than once, Lukey boy. In the churchyard.
(Why, the death train, death whistle blowin' full away. And don't it make sense, boy, hearin' it there? Hearin it where it stops? Don't it now?
(I guess it does.
(Sure it does. Sure.)
Luke covers his ears. He starts to cry.
``You make him stop that now,'' John bellows to the woman who long since stopped sharing his bed, his room, his life. ``You get him back in that bed, Edna, so's we can have peace and quiet. A man can't even get a good night's sleep in his own house no more, all this horseshit goin' on. Been goin' on now two years, it has. I mean to put a stop to it.''
``You shut up, John. Just keep that trap of yours shut. Can't you see he's afraid?''
``Nine years old, and afraid of the dark. It's downright sinful, is what it is.''
``I told you, shut up.''
``Where's he get all this nonsense, that's what I'd like to know.''
``Go back to your room, John. I'll handle this. This is none of your concern.'' She's sounding angry now, Aunt Edna is, angry like the day she threw that young whippersnapper from the electric company right out of the front parlor.
``Goin' on like somebody fresh on the lam from the looney bin.''
``Put a lid on it, John.''
``Well, I'll tell you where he gets this,'' John goes on, the rage building in his voice. ``From Matthew Dorfman, that's where.''
``Matthew Dorfman's your best worker,'' Edna says. ``Anybody around here's talkin' nonsense, it's you, John Johnson.''
``Idiot, no-good, sonofabitch Matthew Dorfman. Sits on his brains, that one does. Tomorrow, gonna fire him. Don't need no farmhand gettin' this kid riled up like that. First light, gonna fire him. That'll put an end to this midnight crap with the kid here.''
``Matthew's my friend,'' Luke says, but John doesn't hear him.
(They laugh at me, Lukey, all the time. Call me names. Your own uncle's 'bout the worst.
(Folks are like that, I guess. Mean, some of 'em. Downright mean. You look a little different, talk a little slow, and they laugh at you. Human nature, I guess. The dark side of things.
(But I like you, Matt.
(I like you, too, Luke.
(And I don't think you look strange. Honest, I don't.
(You're a good boy, Lukey. Gonna be a fine man. I'll see to that. I'll see you make it.)
``It's okay, Luke,'' Edna says when John's gone back to his room.
Eleven stops the death train's made in Carson's Corners since Luke started hearing it two years ago, the same summer Uncle John brought a simple-minded out-of-towner named Matthew Dorfman onto the payroll. Eleven folks ticketed, boarded and taken away. Phyllis Smith, who died of a heart attack the evening of the day she had tea with Edna. Uncle John's schoolhood buddy George Snyder, who put the barrel of a shotgun into his mouth and pulled the trigger the third night of a three-day drinking binge. Mr. and Mrs. Gerard and their two children, killed instantly in a car crash a mile down Route 16, right there by the end of Uncle John's number-two cornfield. The three scouts from Troop 112, drowned when their canoe tipped over the afternoon of St. George's annual parish picnic. Old Mrs. Wannamaker, the Sunday morning Bible teacher, whose house burned down Christmas Eve.
(Trains run on schedule, Luke.
('Course they do.
('Specially this one.
('Course, it ain't no ordinary schedule. Comes and goes as it sees fit, if you get what I mean.
(Ever wonder who makes up those funny schedules, Lukey, my boy?
(Never did. Who, Matt? Who makes them up?
(Folks that run 'em, that's who.
(But who runs them, Matt?
(Can't tell you that, my boy. Don't know myself. But it's gonna be someone pretty important, right? Train that big?
They stay by the window, sitting, staring out, Edna's arms around Luke.
Death train's stopped now. Baggage's being unloaded. Taking on water. What's that bang? Must be adding on a car. Must be that.
In his room, John closes his eyes and is almost asleep when he swears he hears it, from across the moonlit fields: a sound like a train whistle, then the uncomfortable grating of metal spinning on metal, and then, as the death train gets traction, builds momentum, a steady chug-a-lug-a-lugging.
He thinks of Luke, but only for a moment, because the aneurism that's been quietly blowing up inside his brain finally bursts, flooding his skull and drowning out the scream starting to form on his lips.
``On its way, ain't it, Luke?'' Edna whispers as the breeze suddenly freshens and the staleness begins to move out of the farmhouse.
He shakes his head, Luke does. ``Yes, Auntie. On its way.''
On his forehead the new wind is cool, comforting, reminding. Outside, the cornfields are dark, quiet, asleep.