background

Train Engine

PART ONE

Midnight was an hour gone, and the light bulb was still shining under its shade in Maria’s small bedroom. With a sigh, she sat down on her bed and pulled her long hair out of its ponytail. She sniffed and blinked over tearstained eyes. She slowly ran slim fingers through the jumbled brown mass of hair, all the while thinking of the day, and wishing she might return to that moment and erase what she had said. Wishing she could return to yesterday, or maybe even years before, and fix those problems that had grown slowly and had reached their peaks that evening.

The March day was long, busy, and filled with turmoil. Beginning at 6 AM as usual, Maria awoke and went to school for seven hours, then had two hours to do homework, then had to rush off to the restaurant where she worked to wait tables for five and a half hours. Except she hardly did any homework in those two hours—she was distracted by a phone call from her friend Will, who seemed to want to talk about something important, but only got around to bringing up that they were going to graduate soon.

.•*°*•.

“Is there something you really wanted to tell me, Will?” I asked, after ten minutes of idle chatter. “I’m kind of trying to finish up this history paper.”

“Sorry,” came his voice. “Well, I just wanted to make sure we’re going to keep in touch after high school.”

“Of course we will,” I said, almost laughing, confused about why he would even ask that. “We’ve been friends for, what, five years? You think I would just forget about you?”

A bit of a chuckle came through the speaker. “Maybe I have separation anxiety. But, Maria, it’s only two months away, and, you know, after five years, there’ve been times when . . . well, you know . . . ”

“What is it, Will? What’s your point?”

.•*°*•.

The abrupt sound of a train in the distance, blaring its horn, interrupted Maria’s recollection of the conversation. Through her open window, she could hear the locomotive chugging, wheels turning, cars zooming along the rails. It was such a familiar sound. Every night, when she was up this late, she heard the train passing less than a mile away. The horn was a pleasant, almost musical sound to her—it made her think of comfort, and home, and peace inside her mind and her family.

The usually calming sound was out of place tonight.

Sleep, she decided, would be an escape from the day. She turned off her lamp, then lay down and closed her eyes, listening to cars whooshing by on roads close to the house.

But her mind would not stop repeating the day’s events.

When she got home from work at 11 PM, at first she couldn’t tell if anybody was home. Where was her dad, her older brother? At least the dog, Malt, greeted her warmly.

Then she heard voices coming from the basement. It sounded like they were arguing . . .

She walked halfway down the steps, and sat down where she could hear them without being seen by them. She started to listen . . .

.•*°*•.

“. . . taught you, you’re throwing it out the window!” Dad yelled. “I never thought that just two years at college would ruin you like this! You’re home for spring break, it’s supposed to be a nice time with the family, but you’re driving home drunk!”

“I only had, like, maybe four shots last night!” I heard Lance shout back. “You call that drunk? It was just a fun little thing to do with my old high school friends!”

Dad didn’t answer. He was probably trying to find the words that would make Lance understand just a little bit.

“You and your values or whatever you call them are just . . . old! Can’t I ever have fun? Didn’t you do anything . . . normal when you were in college?”

“If normal is what you call dangerous and harmful, then no!” Dad replied. “When I was your age, I kept myself safe and healthy! Don’t you have any sense? Can’t you see that you’re throwing your own life away?”

“Oh, come on! You and your perfect little, always doing the right thing, never messing up since the day you were born! You expect me to be as perfect and proper as you supposedly were. If Mom was still here she would cut me some slack!”

“Don’t bring up your mother!” Dad raised his voice. “If she were here she would say exactly what I’m saying.”

I had been tearing up before this, but the mention of Mom made my tears spill over.

“She never had as many expectations as you do!” Lance retorted. “This family is so messed up! I’m leaving!” I started to hear his footsteps.

While Dad shouted, “Lance, come back here! Where will you stay?!” I was scrambling up the stairs, trying to leave no evidence that I had been listening.

I was cautiously standing at the rail on the third floor, and I saw Lance come up, his feet pounding on the floor. Before he reached the door, I quietly croaked, “Lance, wait.”

“Piss off!” he said without stopping or looking up. He went out the door and slammed it.

I started crying. It was all I could do not to sob out loud. With my face in a grimace, I wandered into my bedroom, sat on the floor against my bed, and cried. I hugged my knees and put my head on my arms.

Malt appeared in my bedroom and sniffed at me, quirky, big, and smiling as usual. She sat down next to me, and I couldn’t help but scratch behind her ears and pet her thick golden fur.

What do I do? I thought. What if Lance doesn’t come back? What if he gets in a wreck?

I sobbed at the thought. I realized I needed to talk to somebody. I wouldn’t be able to go to school the next day if I didn’t feel better about things. Things that were turning this day into one of the worst of my life . . .

Dad wouldn’t talk to me. He would probably go to sleep without even thinking about me. At least I knew I was safe at home, even if he didn’t remember to check.

I reached for my cell phone and dialed the first contact in my list: my best friend Jessica. It was late, but I knew she wouldn’t mind talking. She’s the kind of friend who would even sacrifice precious sleep for me.

Ring . . . ring . . .

A groggy “Hello?”

“It’s Maria,” I said. “I need to talk.”

“You don’t sound too good,” she said. “What’s the matter so late at night?”

“A couple of things,” I said, and almost sobbed again. I took several deep breaths and continued. “Number one, Will. Number two, my brother.”

“Ooh,” she said like she was feeling my pain. “Well, start wherever you want and I’ll listen.”

I was so grateful for a listener. I started with Lance . . . I told Jessica how he had been driving drunk, and how his friends at college were having a bad effect on him, and how he stormed off tonight with nowhere to stay but here . . . and how I was extremely worried about him.

She replied with a long pep talk, reassuring me that he would come home, and he and my dad would be able to talk about it. She told me to remember that there is a good heart in Lance that will come out if I can talk to him and tell him how much I care about him. I took her advice to heart, and forced myself to promise that I would sit down with Lance and talk to him.

“So what about Will?” she asked. “I hope it’s not too bad.”

I sighed. Similarly, Malt did a dog groan and laid down next to me.

“It’s pretty bad,” I said. “Okay. Today after school I was doing my homework, and he called me. It seemed like he was just calling to chat, but I noticed that there was some kind of awkwardness, so I asked him about it. It took, like, five minutes to coax it out of him . . . and trust me, it was really awkward . . . then he finally said it.”

“What?” Jessica asked, although I had a feeling she already knew.

“He said he’s in love with me,” I groaned. “He’s had a crush on me ever since we met. Oh, Jessica, I don’t know what to do. When he said that, I got really snappy.”

“What did you say?”

“Well, I told him that we’re friends, and nothing more. That’s how it’s always been. Then he said, ‘But you never talked about other guys.’ I told him that’s because I’m not interested in having a boyfriend yet. Then he got kind of desperate sounding, and he started spewing off little poetic remarks. ‘You’re the kind of girl every guy dreams of . . . beautiful inside and out, and’ oh, whatever other crap he said. I just said, ‘I’m sorry, Will. I don’t want to see you tomorrow.’ And I hung up.”

“Ooh,” Jessica said, again in some kind of pain. “You know, Maria, that was really harsh of you—”

“You’re on his side?” I asked in disbelief.

“Well, Maria, he was trying to break it to you gently. And if he said you’re the kind of girl every guy dreams of, any other girl would have melted right there. You see, he was trying to be nice, and you just shut him down. Do you know how bad it must have made him feel when you hung up on him?”

My conscience squealed at me in little pangs. “Yeah . . .”

She laughed a bit. “Don’t you remember when we first met him in 8th grade? You wouldn’t stop talking to me about how cute you thought he was.”

I smiled. “That was 8th grade, Jessica. We’re almost high school graduates now.”

“All the more reason to have a serious relationship.”

I was taken by surprise. “What? You mean, you think I should go out with him?”

“I think you should give him a chance,” she said. “And apologize for snapping at him on the phone.”

I was at a loss for words.

“Maybe you’ve hardened up because you want to meet your dad’s expectations,” she said gently. “But you know as well as I do that you’ve had feelings for Will for a long time. You’ve shown him you care just by being his friend for so long. Don’t deny those feelings. Soften up a little.”

.•*°*•.

Maria lay staring out her window at the neighborhood. She was going over the conversation in her mind, unable to fall asleep. Now she knew Jessica was right. She wanted to take back what she had said to Will, how she came across as cold and untouchable; she couldn’t bear the thought that she might have made her friend miserable. But that was all he was to her—a friend. How could a five-year friendship turn into a romantic relationship so abruptly?

But it could.

She closed her eyes thinking about Will. How he was funny, intelligent, and undeniably attractive.

I hope he will forgive me, she thought.

I hope Lance will come home.

And she dreamed.

PART TWO

I found myself staring at the stars. Lying in a field of tallish yellow-green grasses, I was looking directly at the dimmer stars and wondering why they disappeared as soon as I looked at them. My hand was shielding my eyes against the full moon so I could see the stars.

A rustling sound nearby caught my attention. I sat up and looked around. Behind me there was a small hedge, and watching me from above it was the face of a wolf.

I gasped, stood up, and backed away a little. But then I noticed the eyes of the animal—they were too large, and solid black. The face looked almost like a stuffed toy. It seemed to be smiling.

Then, to my great surprise, the animal took its face off. It was a mask, and the wearer appeared to be a child . . .

The small person leaped over the bushes and approached me. Without a word, the boy came right up to me and stood beside me, looking at the pine trees scattered around, while I marveled at his odd appearance.

His hair was long, going down to his thin shoulders, and gray like a wolf’s fur. He had gray wolf ears protruding from the top of his head, and they were tilted toward a sound in the distance.

He turned suddenly and spoke to me, and it was too much to take in in the short duration of his words. “Do you hear that?” he asked me, looking up at me with most peculiar large eyes. When he spoke I saw that he had long canine teeth, just like a wolf’s; but his voice, his voice was what flustered and perturbed me.

It echoed, surrounded me, and filled my mind. It was ancient and wise like a weathered old man, innocent and joyous like a young boy, and soft and scintillating like moonlight. It was hard to believe that such a layered voice could come from such a small mouth.

And his eyes, they were almost cute like a child’s, with large black pupils and rims of gray iris. But within the blackness was a depth like an unknown pit, a look of superior knowledge and sardonic, haughty laughter; and they were lit up by a spark like starlight within.

“No,” I finally replied to his question, and my voice sounded small and insignificant.

“Listen carefully,” he said, and again turned toward something in the distance.

I tried to listen. All I heard was a slight breeze rustling through the grasses, but then that same breeze seemed to carry a faraway sound, like a whale’s call underwater—and the sound was familiar, and reminded me of home—the blast of a train horn.

“It is coming,” said the boy, or whatever he might be called.

The horn’s musical sound calmed me, and very, very slowly it grew louder.

“You do not see it coming,” the boy said, the complex layers of his voice still almost overwhelming me. “It is far away, and you do not think about seeing it soon. But it warns you and tells you that it is immense and perilous. Do you heed its warning?”

I didn’t know if I was supposed to answer that. I also didn’t know why he was saying we were going to see it—there were no train tracks in sight. Nevertheless the sound was coming closer. I began to hear the engine chugging and the cars rumbling as well as the horn blaring.

“Before you know it, you see the first signs of danger.”

I saw a spark of light far away, on the ground. And truly, before I knew it, the light zoomed toward me and zoomed away. Not a foot in front of where I was standing, the spark had laid a railroad made of light. The tracks were shining yellow and orange, and flames were moving inside of them; they seemed to be made of hot, flowing lava that didn’t burn the grass of the field or lose its blocky shape.

Apprehensive of what was coming, I took several steps back.

“You begin to wish you had noticed the warnings long before,” the boy continued, standing still, right next to the tracks. He was narrating a strange story that was taking place right before my eyes, but also in my mind. I heard the train horn again, much closer this time. “It gives you a last minute warning, but there is no time to go back . . .”

My heart thumped as I listened to the train engine, coming fast, so fast.

Far to my left, it appeared. Between some trees, black on top of flaming tracks, the train showed itself, and it approached me, loud and terrifying. Billows of dark smoke were pouring out of the exhaust cylinder on top.

“Then it hits you.”

With a blast of its horn that warped as it passed, the dark locomotive engine at the train’s head came and went, and I scrambled farther away. Boxcars, carrying unknown cargo, followed behind, wheels rolling unsteadily along the tracks. The noise in its entirety was so overwhelming that for a moment I thought I was going deaf. It seemed that the monstrous train was never going to end. Its furious wheels were skidding along the fiery tracks and shooting sparks that flew in spirals and swirls, like arms of fireworks on a dark night, slowly fading into smoke.

In vain I was covering my ears and wishing the train would end, would go away. Still I heard the wolf-boy’s voice clearly in my mind. “It is never going to stop. You long for escape, but the turmoil and fury goes on.”

Falling to my knees, I covered my head with my hands. The train was creating a gust of wind that blew through my hair and tossed it every which way.

“When will it stop?” I wailed, but I could not even hear my own voice.

The roar of the horn reached my ears again, but this time it was far in the distance to my right. I looked up, and to my surprise I saw the end coming.

Before I quite realized it, the last car was zooming away, and right behind it the lava tracks were picked up like a controlled flame. Astonished, I watched it go, and it was gone. The boy was gone as well, vanished with the train. But his voice echoed in my ears:

“You are finally at peace again, because it has passed and gone away, as all things must.”

I was left kneeling in the middle of the field, gasping for air while the rest of the world stood unchanged. The trees were calm and motionless, and the moon’s rays of soft light brightened the land. Even the dim stars which were prone to disappearing were silent and still.

Previous Writing  |  Next Writing