Short Story: "The Echo I Couldn't Find"

Written January 26, 2021

Lying in bed as a kid, I'd sometimes hear train horns in the dark. Not nearby ones, I mean. I'd hear them from far away, faintly in the distance. Never in winter, never in summer. It was always those cold autumn nights, the ones where the sky was such a dark shade of purple, it looked black when the moon shone through it.

It was a powerful sound - like a great pressure releasing, like an elephant trumpeting. But when it rolled over my house, the echo made it soft - rounded out the edges. Some nights I was so tired that I wasn't even sure if it was there. But I could hear it perfectly in my head, if I tried to remember. I loved it.

My street was quiet. Forest and brush on all sides - we didn't have any train tracks around. Sometimes I'd lie there, with the thick blankets pulled up over my chin, silently beaming with that kind of wonder most people only have when they're a kid. I wondered where the train was. What did it look like? Where was it going? Did my neighbors hear it, too? I never asked. We never talked.

One day, my dad wanted to take us to an old restaraunt he used to visit when he was my age, and we drove about four miles out, past all the roads I'd ever been before, and all the streets I hadn't seen yet. They don't build houses in that style anymore - the ones with the two steps in front of the porch, and the thin screen doors that rattle when they swing? That's what I think of when I think of small town autumn - the crackle of your tires going over the pebbles. When the maple leaves would get wet, and they'd get bunched up by the cars and pressed against the curb. Some people find those things bleak, but gray skies were always just as interesting to me as blue ones.

We arrived, and we ate. It was a cozy place, filled with old weatherbeaten folks and young tired ones too. The pizza sauce had too many onions in it. Heading home, I watched the world from the backseat window. Someone had swept the road in front of the firehouse recently. The overpass had a crack in the side. The tint of the glass seemed to heighten the chill in the air; it made the flags hang limp on their poles. I yawned.

There, rolling into view while I wasn't paying attention, was a railroad crossing. The lights were out, and the gate arm was up, but there was no mistaking the shape of the sign. I leaned up and over, straining to see the tracks past the door panel. I could just make them out - moss growing over the rails, stretching off into the sunset and fading away with the curve of the horizon. We pulled away and no one else noticed any of it, but my mind was elsewhere - it was remembering that horn.

We went back quite a few times to that restaraunt, and every visit, I craned my neck as I rode home, scanning to catch a glimpse of the train. I never did, and eventually the horn stopped sounding in the autumn, too. But every now and then, when I'm sitting idly, I think about those crisp nights, and what I used to dream about when I was little. I think about the engine I never saw but always heard. I think about what kinds of passengers would ride a rail line tucked away in a place the world seemed to forget. And more than anything else, I think about when I dreamed of where they were going.

The answers I'll never know to that question, I think, will always be better than the truth.

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