Today's Reading

Prologue

L & N TERMINAL TRAIN STATION
BIRMINGHAM, ALABAMA
November 29, 1938, 8:10 a.m.

It was a cool November morning. Inside the large train station, shards of clear bright sunlight shot down through the glass ceiling as arriving and departing passengers and porters with carts piled high with luggage hurried back and forth across the white marble floor in a beehive of activity. Sounds of happy chatter and trains pulling in and out of the station echoed throughout the entire building.

Over on platform 7, the Crescent, the long silver train from New Orleans, was now ready to receive its Birmingham passengers, and Mr. and Mrs. Arthur J. Hornbeck quickly climbed aboard, headed to New York City for their annual Christmas shopping trip.

Mrs. Hornbeck, carrying six large round hatboxes, three in each hand, happily banged down the aisle, hitting several sleeping passengers in the head as she passed by. Mr. Hornbeck, with his newspaper tucked under his arm, followed five steps behind.

Some twelve and half minutes later, after all the hatboxes had been stacked and her fur coat carefully hung up in the compartment closet, Mrs. Hornbeck was finally ready to settle down, relax, and enjoy the ride. She looked out the window just as they were approaching the Whistle Stop, Alabama, railroad crossing. As they got closer, she suddenly noticed a little blond boy in faded overalls standing by the tracks, smiling and waving at the train as it went by. Mrs. Hornbeck had a little boy at home about his age, so as they rode past him, she smiled and waved. When the little boy saw her, he began running under her window, waving back at her, as hard and for as long as he could. She watched him until he and the little dog running along beside him became smaller and smaller, until they were both completely out of sight.

After a long moment, Mrs. Hornbeck turned to her husband with a concerned look on her face and said, "Arthur, I think that little boy back there had an arm missing."

Never looking up from his paper, he replied, "Well, I'll be."

Mrs. Hornbeck sighed, sat back in her seat, and began fingering her triple strand of pearls, then said, "Oh, what a shame. He couldn't have been more than seven or eight at the most, and he was the cutest little thing. You should have seen him. So happy, smiling away. Well, bless his precious little heart. My cousin Charles had a little finger missing, but an entire arm? I wonder what in the world could have happened to him."

Her husband glanced over at her. "What did you say?"

"I said, I wonder how that poor little boy lost his arm. What could have happened?"

Mr. Hornbeck, a master at stating the obvious, replied, "Well...something must have."


She had seen the little boy for only a few seconds at the most. But every year after that, as their train passed through the Whistle Stop crossing, Mrs. Hornbeck always leaned forward in her seat and looked out, hoping to see him again. And every year when he was not there, she would always turn and ask her husband, "Arthur, I wonder whatever became of that cute little blond boy with the one arm."

"Beats me," he always said.
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