DOWN RAIL • by Christopher Owen

I found Dad at the train yard when I arrived for work.  Dressed in overalls and a flannel shirt, he smelled of sulfur and cigarette ash.

“Case,” he said, giving me a nod as if we were old chums.

“Dad.”  I walked past him toward the trainmaster’s office.  Dad turned and followed me.

“You a fireman now, boy?” he asked.

“Engineer.”

“Well, ain’t that dandy.  Following in your daddy’s footsteps.”

“Did I ever really have a choice?”

Dad followed along in silence, taking out a pack of cigarettes and lighting one.  He offered one to me.  “No thanks.  I’m a cigar man these days.”

“Damn things’ll kill ya, son.”

I stopped.  “Look, what do you want?”

“Don’t want nothing.  Just passing through.  But say, since you running your own train these days, maybe I’ll ride along.”

I stared at him a moment, the multiple tracks of the rail yard stretching away behind him to touch the horizon.  An iron-grey sky hung low overhead.  “Sure.  Why the hell not?  Wait here a moment while I go get my orders.”

I left Dad standing in the yard and went into the trainmaster’s office, where I made a request to switch my run for the day.  I was supposed to make a short freight haul to Shreveport, but I requested and was granted a run to Elysian Fields.  It was an easy pickup.  No one really cared for that down rail run.

When I walked out of the office I lit a cigar, then I walked up to Dad.  “Come on.”

My locomotive, an ancient 2-8-2 Mikado steam engine, sat waiting for me at the nearby passenger station.  She was already fired up and seething steam and smoke into the misty morning air.  The fireman, Swamp Cheney, sat in the left seat of the cab.  I climbed in and Dad followed me.

“Say, son.  Why don’t you let me run this trip?” Dad asked.

“That’s not gonna happen.”

“Why not?”

“I’m the engineer now.”

“I was running these things thirty years before you were born.”

“Well, you’re not doing it now.”

Dad turned to the fireman. “Hey Swamp,” he said.  Swamp opened his eyes and nodded.  “Swamp, you remember me, right?  Well, why don’t you take a break and let me fire this run?”

“Don’t have to twist my arm,” said Swamp, who stood and moved away from the fireman’s seat.  He then climbed up on the tender and reclined on the top.  Dad sat in his seat and began to examine the various gauges, levers and valves on the firebox.  He reached down with his booted foot and kicked open the firebox door.

“These things are oil-fired, Dad.  We don’t use coal anymore.”

“I know how to fire an oil burner.”

“Right.  Don’t go popping off or smoking up the place.”

“God damn, son, I taught you everything you know.”

“Whatever,” I said, not really feeling like arguing.  Dad had been gone most of my life, and had never taught me anything, particularly not how to run a train.  I’d worked my way up from brakeman to fireman to engineer completely on my own.

I settled into the engineer’s seat and waited for the conductor to signal me out of the station.  As we waited, I watched as lifeless people slowly climbed into the passenger coaches that extended behind my engine and tender.

“You really belong back there with those people,” I said to Dad.

“This is the only place I ever belonged,” he said.

At length the coaches were full and the conductor gave me the hi-ball sign.  I blew the whistle in two short bursts, then pulled the throttle, enjoying the cough of the steam pistons as they churned the huge drivers.  Dad worked the fireman’s position professionally, keeping a fire in the box and pressure in the boiler.

A short distance out of the station we were switched to the Elysian Fields line, and began to run down the steep grade toward that destination.  The rolling fields and piney woods of the East Texas countryside gave way to the stark desolation that marked this run.

Dad was silent all the way to the River Styx, which we crossed on a massive trestle that passed high above the turgid waters.

“Should’ve known we’d be coming here,” said Dad.  He spat out of the window.

“You wanted to come along.”

He was silent again, and I stared out the front of the cab, looking at the wan twilight as it reflected off the boiler jacket.  As we rounded a curve and exited the trestle, I blew the whistle.  It sounded like a dying albatross.

“You married?” Dad asked me.

“Nope.”

“Got a girl?”

“Nope.”

“The road can be hard.  You ought to find one.  You’ll be wanting a little boy of your own some day.”

I said nothing, and we went back to ignoring one another.

We pulled into the station on time, and I braked the train so that the tender stopped under the water tower.  Swamp stood up and began to fill the tender with water.

“Okay, Dad.  This is where you get off.”

“Awe, come on, son.  Let’s make a few more runs.”

“We can’t do that.  You know you’re supposed to stay down here.  You shouldn’t have left.”

“That wasn’t an easy thing, you know.”

“I don’t doubt that.”

Dad left the cab.  He stood on the station dock, lit another cigarette, then looked back up at me.  “Well, give my regards to your mother,” he said.

“Sure.”

He then turned and walked toward the throng of wide-eyed souls stepping off the coaches.

After a moment I climbed up on top of the tender with Swamp.  I cupped my hands and filled them with liquid from the tilted water spout.  I took a drink.

“Best be careful, Case,” said Swamp.  “That stuff comes from the River Lethe.”

“I know,” I said, gulping down the water, certain memories already beginning to fade.  “I know.”


Christopher Owen lives in Texas with his wife and two cats. His work has appeared at Daily Science fiction, Mirror Dance, Mystic Signals and other places. He is a graduate of the Odyssey Writing workshop.


Rate this story:
 average 4 stars • 1 reader(s) rated this

Every Day Fiction

  • I really liked this. Great atmosphere.

  • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

    Fine story; great use of geography. Four stars.

  • Rob

    An interesting and eerie piece.

  • Tina Wayland

    I like everything that’s written here and everything that isn’t. A fine story.

  • Roberta SchulbergGoro

    Sad that the son chose to carry his father to fields of wealth instead of Shreve where one becomes free of guilt. I guess this is a morality warning – the son chose the field for himself, refused the father’s attempt at reconciliation and now drinks from Lethe. An extreme horror story, a bit overly complex in references, but on further consideration that is how the horror was achieved.

  • Fantastic.

  • Rose Gardener

    The detailed references #5 refers to all went clean over my head. I had only a momentary pause as to why he thought the passengers looked lifeless and a shiver of delight when I realised this was the train to take the dead ‘home’. I loved it! Five big stars. Very clever writing.

  • I agree with #2 that the geographical descriptions interspersed with the dialogue really made this piece work.

    That said, I found myself wanting to know more about the father-son relationship and why it was so irreparably damaged.

  • So wait, this is an afterlife railroad?

  • John Brooke

    Christopher Owen has written one of the deepest and most satisfying Flash Horror Story I have ever read. Subtle and moving as a freight-train with boxcars full of meaning. A monumental moving piece of work. Certainly worthy of more than a paltry 5 stars.

  • Thanks for all the wonderful comments!

    @#9, When I started writing this, I didn’t set out to ‘get all metaphysical,’ I’d just envisioned a straightforward railroad tale, and as I was writing, the story took this supernatural turn of its own accord. So I guess I’ll just say that this story is set in a world where the border between what is real and what is supernatural is blurred, thus its railroads run to many unexpected places.

    As to the geography some of you mentioned, this story begins (though it is not told in the text) in the town of Marshall, in East Texas, where I was born, and where there was once a great rail yard for the Texas and Pacific Railroad, which employed my father. There actually is a small town in East Texas called Elysian Fields, so maybe that’s the origin of the metaphysical turn.

    @#8, Paul, I suppose the difficulties in the father-son relationship stem from the father’s long absences during the son’s childhood, though perhaps it is something else. Either way, I chose to leave it vague, as fathers and sons often have falling outs over many things, and thought it might be nice to leave the piece open to the differing interpretations of various readers.