There is a train that passes a few miles from my house. I seldom hear its whistle, but whenever I do, the low, mournful sound gives me chills.
My mother-in-law first pointed out the whistle to me, one summer weekend when she was visiting. I told her she was wrong, there couldn’t be a train. I was very careful when I bought my house. The realtor knew not to even show us homes within spitting distance of train tracks — the closest ones to our home are at least three miles away. Even the thought that a train whistle might be audible from inside my home put a slimy lump of fear in my gut.
The cold, mechanical hiss and chug of trains has always made me uneasy. I once spent a 15-hour train trip from Barcelona to Paris tossing and turning in my seat, trying to sleep. The car around me was dark; the other passengers’ muffled snores drowned out by the sound of the wheels on the track. Grrr-chunck, grrr-chunck, grrr-chunck.
About every 45 minutes, we’d pass a sleeping town or a train station, and the conductor would blow the horn, just a short blast. But it kept me awake, icy fingers of fear pricking my back. I wasn’t nervous about the trip; it was the train itself, the rocking, the clang of the couplings between train cars.
My parents used to drag me to train festivals as a child. They would try to get me to blow the wooden train whistle, or wear the blue-and-white-striped conductor’s hat. I learned a lot about trains. But something about them always left a queasy, greasy feeling in my stomach.
I was six the first time I heard a train whistle. My family had driven from Maryland to Illinois to visit my grandma, four of us squished into a compact car for 14 hours. I was exhausted when we got there that night. My 16-year-old sister offered to tuck me in and tell me a bedtime story.
Sheryl gave me a bath in grandma’s pink ceramic tub. Then she carefully tucked me between the sheets of the double bed in the guest room. It was a strange room, full of old, dark wooden furniture and green and pink crocheted doilies. The air was thick with a dusty, slightly musty odor and a bit of cloying rose perfume.
My sister sat down on the quilted comforter. Outside, a conductor blasted his whistle as his train rumbled by the house.
“Do you hear that whistle?” she asked.
“That’s a train whistle. At night, when the conductor blows the horn, it’s the signal for the smoke people to get off the train and go into the nearby houses, searching for little children asleep in their beds.”
She paused, looking at me for a long time. I shivered.
“When the smoke people find you, they slice off your head and put a plastic cap on your neck to keep the blood in. Then they pull up the covers and leave your body for your mom and dad to discover in the morning.”
I burrowed under the covers, terrified all the way to the tips of my 6-year-old toes, too scared to say anything at all.
“Well, good night!” she chirped, patting me on the head. Then she turned off the light and left.
I lay awake for a long time, watching the moonlight play on the quilt as I counted the train whistles, waiting for the smoke people to come.