The Midnight Commuter

The Midnight Commuter”

by Tammy Komoff

Shadows passed over dark fields and pastures, through woods and across frozen dirt roads, slowly descending on the Oakfield train depot that lay on the outskirts of the village. The depot appeared a safe haven in the chill autumn night. Its carriage lamps cast a warm circle of light, promising fully stoked pot-bellied stoves and a place to rest within.

It was late, and the only person still around was the station agent, John McKinsey, Mac for short. He was in the office, seated at his desk, surrounded by a bay window overlooking the platform and tracks. His back was to the telegraph station where a half-transcribed message from the Secretary of War lay abandoned on the scarred oak surface. The machine’s final dots and dashes echoed in Mac’s mind, sounding more like the gunfire and mortar rounds he had survived in his youth. Less like the familiar combination that signaled Hitler had stolen another of the village’s sons.

It was a lie, that abandoned message, or a mistake. It had to be, Mac thought. And how could he transcribe a lie when every stroke of the typewriter’s keys was like a nail in a coffin Mac was hammering shut. The typewriter sat silent, waiting. It hurt to look at it or where it sat, on the smallest desk, the one closest to the stove—Johnny’s desk. So, Mac sat staring unseeing as the first snowflakes of the season blew sideways, bright white against the dark forest that lay beyond the tracks. He was paralyzed, afraid to go home to the empty house, where the whispers of loved ones still lingered, afraid to stay and face the message it was his duty to deliver.

The jingle of the door’s bell pulled Mac’s mind from the telegraph and the trenches. He didn’t bother heading to the ticket window; it had been closed since that afternoon, but instead used the door that separated the two halves of the station. His eyes fixed on the floor as he walked, afraid he wouldn’t recover from a glimpse in the wrong direction. A young man, maybe 20, sat on a wooden bench in the waiting room, watching through the grill as the flames danced in the stove. He was familiar in a fleeting way.

“May I help you?” Mac asked.

“Just waiting on my train, sir.” He looked up, and Mac realized he wasn’t much of a man at all. Just a boy really, two, maybe three years younger than Johnny, with a fresh face, yet unmarked by the pain of this world.

“I’m sorry, but the last train came through here hours ago.” Mac gestured to the timetable framed on the wall beside the ticket window. The list of trains was smaller than it had been before the war. Really just a handful of lines, but then again, it seemed these days there were only a handful of people. “Next one doesn’t arrive until 6:57 tomorrow morning.”

“Oh no, sir, I got my ticket right here.” The boy said and held up a yellow ticket with dark embossed lettering. Mac pulled his reading glasses down from the top of his balding head and took the paper.

It was a good job, he thought. Better than he’d seen in years. Come to think about it, when was the last time he’d seen a forged ticket? Had to be a decade at least, and they’d never been this beautiful. ‘The Midnight Commuter,’ read the words encircling a detailed print of a speeding locomotive. The rest of the ticket was standard fare and could have been lifted right off the tickets he sold for the Grand Trunk Railway, except for the fact it didn’t have the railway line’s name or logo on it.

“Son, I’m sorry, but…” There was an eager smile on the boy’s face; no wonder he’d fallen for a scam. He looked like he’d believe anything you told him. Mac had the sudden urge to protect that innocence, it was so rare these days, and the war would see it stolen soon enough. A memory of Johnny in his khaki uniform, that nervous smile on his face, clouded Mac’s vision. Or were those tears? He blinked them away, focused on the boy instead. “There must be a typo on this ticket. Trains don’t run at midnight around here. You come on back in the morning, and we’ll get you sorted out then.”

“Well, sir,” said the boy. “No disrespect, but I was given this ticket and told to be here at midnight and that a train would be coming through. So, if it’s all right with you, and again I mean no disrespect, I think I’ll just sit here a while.” The boy paused a moment, and a pained look crossed his face as if it hurt him to contradict an adult. “I mean s-sir,” he stammered, “If that’s all right.”

Mac realized he was smiling, honest to goodness smiling, not that plastered on pleasantry everyone seemed to wear these days. That he could smile tonight, of all nights…

“Sure, son,” he replied, surprising himself. “We can wait a while.”

Mac handed the ticket back. For a moment, his fingers brushed the back of the boy’s hand. There was a burst of light, and Mac was standing in the French trenches of his youth, muddy water up to his ankles, the lingering stench of smoke and feces. A boy sat in the mud, his back against the earthen wall. He looked like he was staring at the blood on his palms, but when Mac reached out, he found the boy dead. He stumbled back, the mud sucking at his boots, lost his balance, felt himself start to fall. The dead boy looked up at him with clouded eyes, then stood, grabbing Mac just as he was about to tumble.

“You all right, sir?” The fresh-faced boy asked. They were in the waiting room. The boy had let go of Mac, his arms outstretched awkwardly, unsure if Mac would stay on his feet. Augustus. That was the dead boy’s name. Auggie for short. He’d been the first of Mac’s company to go. Too sweet to survive the war, at least that’s what the rest of his platoon said after Mac found him. This boy looked just like him.

“How’d you do…” Mac stopped. That fresh-faced boy didn’t do anything. It was just the late hour playing tricks on an old man’s mind that’d been stretched too far already. “We’ll give it to 12:15,” Mac said, straightening. “If the train’s coming, it’ll be here by then.”

Back in his office, Mac gazed at snowflakes twirling in the wind. Did some other boy now have a similar memory of Johnny? He hoped not, couldn’t stand his son being someone else’s nightmare. But the telegraph had been vague. Those types always were.

The bell jingled. The boy must have looked at the timetable himself, put two and two together, and left. Mac made his way back to the waiting room to smother the fire, thinking of the boy and hoping he wouldn’t spend the night in the cold. Maybe, if he ran into him outside, Mac would invite him home for the evening. It’d be nice to have someone else in the house for a…

The boy was right where he left him, still watching the flames, only now he wasn’t alone. An old woman sat against the far wall. Her hair done up in a tight bun, a carpetbag clutched in her lap, an umbrella slipped through the handles.

“Ma’am?” Mac said. “Is everything all right?” She glared at him, lips pursed.

“I’m fine, thank you,” she said, words polite, the tone not. Teacher, the word floated through Mac’s mind, and as it did, he knew he was right. At some point, this woman had been a teacher and not the type students remembered fondly. No, she was a woman familiar with the various uses of a ruler. Johnny had a teacher like her, though Mac only met her on one occasion. Anabelle had always handled Johnny’s schooling.

“The station’s closed, ma’am,” Mac said.

“It had better not be,” the woman replied. “I am not waiting outside.” Mac paused a moment, confused at where this night was taking him.

“Are you here for the Midnight Commuter?” he asked, looking hesitantly at the boy, but the boy was still transfixed by the flames. The woman said yes, flourishing her ticket for Mac’s benefit. How many people had this con artist scammed? The man must have been first-rate to convince a woman like this.

“Ma’am…” he turned to the boy sheepishly, “Son. I am sorry, but there is no Midnight Commuter. You all have been sold phony tickets.” The boy looked at Mac with that innocent smile as if he hadn’t heard a word. The woman scowled.“You all have been scammed,” Mac said. And when they didn’t respond, “Whoever sold you those fake tickets stole your money.” They stared at him uncomprehendingly. “There has never been a Midnight Commuter. It would be a miracle if a train showed up tonight.” Still, they didn’t respond. Finally, as bluntly as he could. “There is no train coming!” The boy looked back at his flames. The old woman opened her bag and pulled out a novel, the cover a marbleized pink. “I…” Mac tried again. The woman licked her finger, turned the page. “You…” He was flabbergasted.

Outside came a jumble of footsteps on the stairs and platform. There was a laugh, and someone crashed into the building, the loud thud disturbing the woman’s reading. The door flew open, banging against the wall and vibrating back slowly as a trio of soldiers stumbled into the room. They laughed and held onto each other for support, the smell of liquor enveloping them like a cloud. One spotted the old woman giving them her pursed-lip glare.

“Shhh,” he said, holding a finger to his mouth and giggling. And then, in a stage whisper, “I think we’re too loud.”

“You boys can’t spend the night here,” Mac said. “There’s a barn up the road you can…”

“We’re not sleeping here,” one interrupted. And another said, “Our train’ll be here soon.”

“About damn time, too,” said the third. “We’ve been waiting…” He held up his fingers as if to count. “Four months now?” He looked at his friends; they shrugged.

“The Midnight Commuter?” Mac asked, and when the soldiers said, ‘Yes, that’s the one,’ Mac sighed and headed back to the office.

He heard more footsteps on the platform outside, the thumps echoing in the empty space beneath the boards before the bell jingled. More travelers, a pair this time, judging by the sound of it. And was that another behind them? Mac hadn’t seen this many people awaiting a train since before Pearl Harbor.

Was he wrong? Was there a special commuter scheduled? He’d worked at the station since returning home from the Great War. In all that time, they’d never had a midnight commuter. But then again, they were at war. Who was to say Grand Trunk wouldn’t run a special train? Soldiers were waiting; could it be for the war effort? They’d have told him, surely. Unless it was a mistake and Grand Trunk and the War Office had simply forgotten. And suppose they had made a mistake as crucial as forgetting a train, an error that could easily lead to a derailment. Could that mean there was another mistake that evening? He looked to the telegraph station and the half-finished transcription. He’d send a message down the line, find out what was going on. But then again, if this was a secret train, he wouldn’t want to tip off the Germans. They’d been told early on to expect all messages to be intercepted and proceed accordingly.

Mac pulled his pocket watch from his waistcoat. 11:37. He’d wait. Twenty-three minutes and he’d know. Either the Midnight Commuter was real or an elaborate scam. Either the telegraph was right, or there had been two mistakes that evening.

Mac retrieved the wool overcoat and hat Grand Trunk had issued him years ago. He surveyed himself in the cracked mirror that hung by the bay window and straightened his bow-tie. He was the Station Master. There was a comfort in falling back into this role—a comfort in being able to perform a duty, a comfort in postponing the telegraph’s transcription.

The waiting room was crowded when Mac emerged. More soldiers had arrived and some Navy men too, but there were civilians as well. A woman sat with a tiny baby asleep in her arms in the darkest corner. She rocked back and forth, gazing at the peaceful face that peeked out from the folds of blankets.

A few men, not too much older than Mac, sat scattered around the room. A petite gentleman in a brown twill suit rested next to the old school teacher. He was oblivious to her glare and her hand tightly gripping the umbrella, ready to strike if he made a move toward her bag or, more unlikely, her.

The door opened, and another crush of passengers entered. Mac was jostled and shoved, strange images and memories flashing in his mind. He found himself near the entrance to the track’s platform, looking at the fresh-faced boy almost beneath him. The boy’s view of the fire was blocked by people. He stared at his palms lying open in his lap.

“Auggie.” The boy looked up. Had Mac said the name aloud without realizing it?

“Yes, sir?” the boy said. Mac was dumbfounded.

“Is your name…” One of the drunken trio tumbled into him, thrusting Mac into the door. It swung open with the collision, and he stumbled out onto the frigid platform. The drunken soldiers yelled in dismay at the cold night air until someone grabbed the door shutting out Mac as well as the cold.

An overflow of waiting passengers stood in little clumps around the platform. When had they arrived?

“Mac!” A surprised voice called his name, and he turned, following the sound. An elderly woman appeared from around a group of passengers.

“Gladys?” Mac said. She was his wife’s old friend; Mac hadn’t seen her since Anabelle’s funeral. “I thought you moved to Bakersfield to be with your daughter.” She smiled.

“Well, you know,” Gladys said. “You always go home one last time.” She leaned in close. “How is Johnny?”

“He’s…” A knot sprung in his throat, choking him. “He’s well, he’s…” Mac’s nostrils flared, and tears welled. If he said it aloud, he’d break. Gladys’ smile fell.

“Oh, Mac,” she said, reaching a comforting hand out to grip him by the forearm.

It was day, summer. Young Gladys and Anabelle sat gracefully on a picnic blanket, their skirts fanned out, sweating glasses of lemonade in their hands. Baby Johnny lay before them, teething on a toy block. The sun was behind Anabelle, making the wisps of hair that had escaped her pins sparkle, her skin glow. She looked at Mac and smiled.

“…the end,” Gladys said, pulling her hand from his arm. They were back on the platform, the wind biting his bare skin.

“What was that?” Mac asked. He meant the picnic.

“I said, ‘Everything will be all right in the end,’” Gladys looked at Mac sympathetically. “I should let you get back to work.” With wrinkled lips, she leaned in, giving him a kiss on the cheek. For a moment, he heard Anabelle’s laugh, stunning him. “Take care of yourself, Mac.” And before he could recover, she disappeared into the crowd. He looked for her, but the platform was now thick with people. Some he thought he recognized, though most he didn’t.

In the distance, the bells of the Methodist church started to ring. Mac pulled out his watch. 11:57. In the next moment, the Catholic church bells began, and a moment after, the clock tower that sat in the village square joined in. During the day, those bells were almost too faint to hear, the noise of life obscuring their chimes. But when the village slept and the farm animals in the fields that lined the road bedded down, the sound traveled farther. He could hear the bells melding in a cacophony of competing tunes. It surprised him, given the number of people awaiting the train’s arrival. None of the bells were on time, never had been. The only accurate clock in the whole town was sitting in Mac’s hand.

He watched the second hand tick round the cream face. 11:58, and if the train were real, he should soon see the headlight and maybe, if the wind was blowing right, hear the sound of the engine chugging and the breaks starting their screeching halt.

“Pardon,” Mac said, sliding by a new group of passengers. More flashes of memory. “Pardon me.” He pushed to the edge of the platform, where he could lean out and look down the tracks. There was a copse of trees, a slightly darker shade of black than the surrounding night. He’d see the headlight first peeking through the trunks. A glimmer that would make him think he imagined it until suddenly the train would clear the forest, the light swinging round, full and bright.

He was excited. Imagine that, Mac thought, after all these years working the station, and I’m excited to see a train again. But if this train was real, what other miracles could happen that evening? Mac looked at his watch, thirty seconds to midnight. The Methodist church bells fell silent. Fifteen seconds and the trees remained dark. The Catholic church bells gave their last ring. Midnight. Inside the waiting room, the trio of soldiers hooted and hollered as if it were New Year’s Eve. Apparently, Mac wasn’t the only one with an accurate watch after all. And now it was just the clock tower tolling its slow, lonely bells. Gong… gong…. 12:01. The last note hung over the empty tracks. He waited while the second hand went around the watch again, then again and again.

The sounds of the crowd fell away. Mac leaned out over the tracks praying for that distant whistle, the flare of light through the trees. But a growing pain in his chest told him he knew better. There was no Midnight Commuter, and the War Department didn’t make mistakes on telegrams. All these people had fallen for the same con, and for a little while, he had too. There on the platform, with the hushed crowd behind, and the empty tracks stretching over the horizon, Mac knew what loneliness truly was.

12:14. The platform was dead silent. He’d wait another minute. That had been the original plan. One more minute and he’d turn and deal with the passengers, arrange new tickets, find them lodging… log the last telegram. His eyes flicked between the watch and the trees as the second hand ticked. Thirty seconds, fifteen, five. 12:15.

“Johnny,” he whispered to the night and felt that knot in his throat threaten again to choke him. Mac swallowed it down and turned. The passengers stood shoulder to shoulder, a wall of people looking out on the tracks with the same vacant stare the fresh-faced boy had when he looked at the flames. Mac startled and caught himself before inadvertently taking a step back off the platform. More people had arrived, silently ascending the stairs as Mac had watched the shadows in the distance. How many were there? Two hundred, three? Where would he even start?

“Ladies and gentlemen…”

A roar of wind and steam swept the platform. The squeal of metal wheels sliding to a halt, drowning out Mac’s voice. The Midnight Commuter was there, resting like a racehorse in the starting gate. Its engine thrummed and steamed as if it were ready to take flight and only held in place by the most fragile of reins.

It couldn’t be, Mac thought. He’d have seen it. It takes eight minutes for a train to reach the station after clearing the trees. Eight minutes and even if the headlight was off, which it wasn’t, he would have heard that engine.

With an immense clatter, the compartment doors opened, and steps unfolded simultaneously down the length of the platform. The passengers roused, blinking as if in bright light. Silently, they formed lines and began to board. The conductor, a tall, dark man, squeezed out a door near the front, catching sight of Mac and making his way over.

“You have the time?” he asked.

“How did you… Where did you all come from?” Mac stammered.

“Pittsburgh,” the conductor said. “We’ve been running behind lately, increased traffic with the wars and all.”


“You have the time?” The conductor was holding his own pocket watch. Mac checked, told him 12:17, watched as the man shook his head, and adjusted a dial.

“Where are you headed?” Mac asked, and when the conductor said north Mac said, “Where, Cleveland?” The man gave a noncommittal smile.

“We’ll stop there.” He put his watch in his waistcoat pocket and slowly started to saunter up the platform, weaving between the long lines.

The train was not large, six passenger cars in all. Most of the window seats seemed to already be occupied. Mac wondered where they were going to put all the new passengers. It must be standing room only, except he could see a little way into the train, and it wasn’t.

Suddenly, a face flashed in the window, like catching a glimpse of someone turning away. It was a familiar face, but not like the fresh-faced boy or the teacher or even Gladys had been familiar. This face was different. In that brief moment, this face made him feel like he was home.

He searched the windows and yes, there he was again, another flash before he disappeared, Johnny. The War Department had been wrong; the telegram was for someone else. Johnny was here. Mac was walking toward the train before he knew he was moving, shouldering his way past passengers. He reached the door, clutching the handgrip to pull himself up, when an iron grasp seized his wrist, pulling him back.

“Whoa now,” the conductor said.

“I need to get on that train.” The conductor looked Mac up and down with a skeptical eye.

“I don’t believe you have a ticket,” he said. Mac pulled out his wallet, reaching for the bills, but the man stopped him. “These aren’t the kinds of tickets you buy.”

“My son is on that train.” There was the knot, his voice broke. “I have to get on.”

“It doesn’t work like that, Pops.” It was Johnny. His khaki uniform clean and pressed, his skin flushed from the cold. He leaned out a train window, an arm dangling down. The conductor released Mac.

“Get off the train, Johnny,” Mac said in a soft voice, almost a whimper.

“I can’t, Pops,” he said. “I think you know that.”

“Johnny, please.” Mac reached up, grabbing his son’s hand with both of his.

Light flared, and there was Anabelle’s voice again. Mac heard her singing before he saw her. She swayed in the dim light, rocking baby Johnny in her arms. Mac was in the nursery doorway, afraid to move lest the creaking floorboards wake his son. And then, Johnny was a little boy with a skinned knee running to Papa for comfort, and Mac was scooping him up, breathing him in, as the boy’s small arms wrapped around Mac’s neck. Mac, looking up into the canopy of a crabapple tree. Seven-year-old Johnny smiling down at him, his face sticky from eating the sweet fruit. “Pops, catch!” And a perfect red crabapple falling from above. Johnny at a recital. Johnny at the dinner table. Johnny riding a bike. Johnny heading off to school. Images flashed through Mac’s mind. Johnny growing older in each. Until the last, on the station platform. Johnny in his uniform, a duffle bag over his shoulder, a scared yet excited look on his face. Mac telling him to be careful, keep his head down. And Johnny replying they didn’t fight in trenches anymore and that he’d be all right.

“I’ll be all right, Pops,” Johnny said. They were back on the platform—the last of the passengers boarding the Midnight Commuter. “I’m looking forward to this trip.” He had that same scared, excited look. “You know, I think I’m going to see Mom.” Mac let out a half-sob, half-laugh, smiling.

“Give her my love,” he said.

“I’m glad we stopped here, Pops. I’m glad I got to see you.”

Up and down the platform, the compartment doors closed with a bang. The conductor hopped up the stairs of the first car, then turned, leaning out. He scanned the platform one last time, his gaze coming to rest on Mac and his son.

“All aboard!” The conductor yelled; his eyes locked on Mac’s. Mac nodded. The engineer leaned out the engine’s window, echoing the call. A puff of steam, a screech, and the wheels started to turn. Mac held tight to Johnny’s hand, slowly walking, then jogging down the platform as the train began to pull away.

“I’m so proud of you, Johnny,” Mac said, now running. They reached the edge of the platform, Johnny’s fingers slipped from his grasp.

“I love you, Pops,” Johnny called over the sound of the engine, and Mac called back he loved him too, hoping his son heard it over the roar. He waved Johnny off, standing on the corner of the platform, watching until the train disappeared in the swirling snow and steam, and whispering one word over and over into the night… goodbye.


WASHINGTON D.C. 6:45 PM 11-16-43





Rec’d 11-16-43

Dlvd 11-17-43


Tammy Komoff’s work has appeared in Bards and Sages Quarterly, DreamForge Anvil, and All World’s Wayfarer among others. She recently earned her MFA from the University of Central Florida. She lives in the Orlando area with her husband and their two daughters, where she is currently working on a novel. For more information, please visit


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3 Responses to The Midnight Commuter

  1. LuAnn says:

    What a beautiful story! Tammy’s writing catches you from the first sentence.

  2. John Baumgartner says:

    This is a nicely plotted and presented ghost story in three acts with a big, beautifully -written heart. I liked the way the author paced and expressed the clues unfolding and using the time element to leave the final conclusion in doubt.

  3. Terese Robison says:

    Very moving, inventive and suspenseful. It connects me with Hawthorne, equally atmospheric, though Hawthorne moralizes and lacks subtlety in many of his tales. I admire the blending of originality and universality.

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