The Last Train
The old man rocked on the back porch; his niece sat beside him. The evening closed around them, crickets chirped and cicadas buzzed. His niece lived with him; she cared for him in his last years and he accompanied her in the autumn of her life. Two lonely people, both unmarried, both aging with nothing to do but sit on the back porch and gaze at the garden, and wait.
“Uncle, can I get you something? Maybe some lemonade?” Niece asked.
Uncle nodded and told her to hurry.
“I wouldn’t miss it for the world,” she giggled.
Niece entered the old house, once a railroad station, with its gabled roof and stumpy watchtower. It had been more than a century since the trains had stopped and half that time since the old station became a house with an added two-story wing. The old railroad tracks, now rusty and decaying, marred the garden Niece cared for with vehemence, yet she’d never covered them.
Trains had stopped at this station, passengers had climbed off and on, and then had pulled out with a loud whistle conveying hopes to their destinations. The tracks ran through the tree-lined meadow and disappeared into the forest, where they wound around a bend and continued along a steep ravine. The Last Train had vanished into the trees and reappeared at the bottom of the gorge as a twisted and smoldering wreck. No one survived. No one removed the tracks either.
“The train won’t come if you cover them,” Uncle had said when she’d first moved in a decade ago. She had watched him with quizzical eyes, wondering if his mind was deteriorating too.
“Trains haven’t stopped here in more than a century,” she’d said.
He’d grumbled something and nodded, but a tiny sparkle had shone through his old man’s eyes.
Niece joined Uncle with two tall glasses of lemonade.
“I miss the fireflies,” he broke the silence, “haven’t seen one since that night.”
“What night?” Niece asked in her most nonchalant voice; she sensed a rare peep into Uncle’s history.
“The night she vanished. Crickets and cicadas had buzzed then too, but the fireflies flitted all over the fountain,” he sipped the lemonade.
“My bride-to-be; she left her wedding dress on the perch and disappeared into the night.”
“You were engaged?”
“She left you?”
He nodded again, “though I’ve always suspected I’m to blame. Me and my trysts.”
Niece gazed at Uncle with wide eyes. She’d never married because no one had proposed, but Uncle…
Uncle produced a photograph from his inner jacket pocket. A beautiful girl with marble skin and cropped jet-black hair that peeped from under a cloche hat with a white flower bow on the side smiled at the camera. The picture was black-and-white, but Niece noticed the light eyes, maybe blue, that twinkled with delight. She was young and fresh, and Uncle’s perfidy stung Niece.
“She took her yellow raincoat, her blue suitcase and that hat. They found the hat by an abandoned car. It was 1959. We never heard from her again.”
“What was her name?”
A tiny green light twinkled between them and Uncle and Niece turned their gaze back to the garden and the long-forgotten tracks. The same green light sparkled and multiplied until the garden glittered.
“Fireflies!” Uncle exclaimed with delight.
They watched the fireflies with awe and wonder as the bugs flitted around them, like flickering memories of innocent times.
“Uncle, what was her name?” Niece repeated after a moment.
A rumble blew through the trees and Niece’s question faded in the wind. The rumble thundered in their ears, yet the world remained unperturbed. In an instant, a black steam locomotive chugged into the eroding tracks. It hissed and sputtered. The murmur of voices overpowered the crickets and the hubbub and flurry of the past engulfed Uncle and Niece. A stationmaster called out orders. Gentlemen in suits, high-collars and stovepipe hats, paid porters to handle their luggage. Women in long skirts with bustles, corseted jackets and flowered bonnets, fanned themselves or closed their parasols, ready to ascend the train.
The locomotive churned on to the edge of sight, and the first wagon appeared with its passengers peering out of the window. Niece knew who to expect: the old lady and her elaborate hairdo, the gentleman with prominent muttonchops smoking his pipe, and the young dandy with the round spectacles. All of them with shining eyes and hopeful smiles, unaware they rode The Last Train and their dreams had tumbled into the abyss a century and a half ago.
Uncle gasped and pointed. Niece followed his gaze and through one window saw two passengers she’d never seen in the decade they’d watched The Last Train arrive. A young woman with a pearly complexion, short jet-black hair and blue eyes leaned her head on the shoulder of a rugged dark-haired and olive-skinned man with piercing black eyes.
“Miriam!” Uncle shrieked.
The train chugged away and vanished into the trees, toward the final bend.
Niece stared aghast; the photograph flittered in the breeze.
But… The Last Train crashed long before Uncle was born.