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Everything I Know About Trains

Everything I Know About Trains

Maxim Loskutoff

Baldry-PaperDarts-Train.jpg

The sky is a special kind of gray in the fall in Montana. A gray you can look at for hours because it looks like it’s about to break. But it doesn’t break. Not for months.

I stared at the sky from my desk in Rattlesnake Middle School. Squirming around in the orange plastic chair. Wedged under the plywood top, my chewed pens sliding in the groove at the bottom. I’d pretend to be a hero: saving kindergarteners from a mountain lion, using a tray table to beat down terrorists on a plane. I was twelve then; I’m fifteen now. I was waiting for something to happen. And when something finally did happen, neither the sky nor me were any help at all.

Mrs. Johnson kept me after school that day. She said I was cheating off Rachel Zieg. Rachel was blonde and she sat up so straight that I wanted to touch her back to see if it was made out of the same stuff as mine. The little desks didn’t seem to bother her at all. She let me copy her math homework. I didn’t feel like a cheater, and I couldn’t stand Mrs. Johnson. She had big droopy eyes and she slunk around the classroom, peering over everyone’s shoulders like a mangy old basset hound. She talked to me for twenty minutes about how I was letting myself down. As punishment, she said I couldn’t sit by Rachel anymore. I had to sit by myself at the front of the class.

So I was late getting out of school, and I was mad. I slammed some locker doors. Smacked the pillars in the hall with the palm of my hand. Kicked open the doors. I hoped Marty wouldn’t be waiting for me, but there he was, leaning on the bike rack. Not even pretending to be doing anything, just standing there with his big blue backpack and fancy sneakers.

Nobody liked Marty. It was just my luck that he lived near me so I had to walk home with him. He was cocky and loud, and pimples were already popping up on his scrawny neck. He used big words then smirked when you didn’t know what they meant. Exacerbate. Ludicrous.

Nobody liked Marty. It was just my luck that he lived near me so I had to walk home with him. He was cocky and loud, and pimples were already popping up on his scrawny neck. He used big words then smirked when you didn't know what they meant. Exacerbate. Ludicrous.

But it was a long walk—all the way down Van Buren, through Greenough Park, and across the train tracks—and I didn’t like to be alone. Everyday a freight train went past at four. We’d try to beat it. Sometimes we cut it pretty close. It was a game we had, running across at the last second. Ducking under the warning bar. Making the conductor blow his horn. The wind from the rusty brown and red cars flapping our shirts.

Marty talked about the Red Sox as we walked. How they were going to get it back next year and his dad would take him to the World Series.

I tried not to listen. I thought about Rachel. I was going to miss trying to make her laugh. She had a nice laugh. It was loud and embarrassed, like she knew she shouldn’t but just couldn’t help it.

The train was also running late that day. Just chugging into view when we left the park and saw the tracks across Idaho Street. I thought about making a run for it. I didn’t feel like waiting for all the cars to go by and having to listen to Marty talk about the damn Red Sox the whole time.

I was starting to jog when I saw the car and stopped cold. It was on the tracks. A little blue Pinto. Just sitting there, two wheels on one side, two on the other.

The red warning lights were flashing. The warning bar was down, resting over the blue hood. Those warning bars are good for shit; that’s one of the things I learned that day. There were no other cars or people around. Orange and yellow maple leaves drifted across the pavement. The train whistle started howling, joined by the screech of brakes.

A woman was inside the car. Her head was down over the steering wheel. Her brown hair fell around her face. The pink top of her ear peeked out like a fin. Her hands were in her lap and I knew the steering wheel was making a soft red dent across her forehead. I yelled. Get out! Help! Her head twitched but she didn’t look up.

A woman was inside the car. Her head was down over the steering wheel. Her brown hair fell around her face. The pink top of her ear peeked out like a fin. Her hands were in her lap and I knew the steering wheel was making a soft red dent across her forehead. I yelled. Get out! Help! Her head twitched but she didn’t look up.

Marty began to yell too, but it was like yelling down the drain.

I thought about running over and trying to pull her out, but the train was getting close, its tall steel nose rushing down the track. I was scared. I wished I were further away so I couldn’t see her. Other than that it might’ve been pretty cool, a train hitting a car. Like a Bruce Willis movie right there on quiet Idaho Street.

My heart banged against my ribs. The woman slowly rolled her head from side to side. All the hours I’d spent pretending to be a hero, and there I was, frozen. Mom wouldn’t nearly make it in time. I remember thinking that. That’s how dumb I was. Thinking if I could just get in touch with Mom she’d come over and straighten everything out.

We stood there, thirty feet away, listening to the whistle blow and the brakes screech. Watching the woman. Praying she’d get out. I edged a little closer, but not even into the street. I didn’t want to get hit by any metal or glass. I smelled hot metal, smoke.

The car crumpled in on itself like a soda can when the train hit. The woman’s head snapped against the door. Glass exploded out. Then she was gone and the sound came, louder than anything I’d ever heard. Punching. Driven. A baseball-bat-cymbal-crash that made me duck and throw my arms over my ears.

The train finally stopped a hundred feet past the intersection in a cloud of smoke. We couldn’t see the Pinto anymore. Just the rusty freight cars, painted logos chipping off, and the trees and dry hills behind. I realized I was holding out my hand. Like maybe the woman could’ve caught it and pulled herself free as she flew by, and be standing beside me, shaking the glass out of her hair.

“Oh, God. Shit,” Marty said.

It was completely quiet and still. No more whistle. No more brakes. No more screaming metal. I dropped my hand.

A man in blue overalls leapt out of the caboose and ran along the side of the train. He ran fast, his arms and legs pumping like pistons. His face was locked up, angry. He stopped at the front of the train. He leaned forward then stepped back. Sweat dripped off his chin. Swearing, he took a walkie-talkie from the front of his overalls.

Marty sat down on the curb. He stared at his feet. His big backpack looked like it was trying to push him over. “Is she dead?” he asked.

I stared at him.

He looked up, his brown eyes watery. “She was in there.”

A sour, metallic taste filled my mouth. I kicked a rock. It hit his foot and he turned away. I started walking home, blinking so I wouldn’t cry.

I had to go around the train. I ran my hand along its side: metal ridges, the roughness of rust. Heat ribboned off the brake-worn tracks. The conductor was standing by the remains of the Pinto. His index finger was looped through his belt and he looked off to where Rattlesnake Creek worked its way down into the valley.

I had to go around the train. I ran my hand along its side: metal ridges, the roughness of rust. Heat ribboned off the brake-worn tracks. 

The woman’s arm poked through the windshield. Blood spattered what was left of the glass. A piece of her scalp lay in the street—brown hair spread among the leaves. One of the hubcaps had rolled all the way down into the creek. It was caught, swirling, against a rock.

I looked back. Marty was still on the curb, his head in his hands.

The next day, my mom asked me if I’d seen anything. She’d read about it in the paper. I said it had already happened by the time I got there. All I saw were ambulances and fire trucks.

“A horrible thing,” she said, pulling my head to her chest and holding it there. “She was only twenty-five.”

Marty wouldn’t look at me in the halls. His dad started picking him up from school. I wanted to say I was sorry. I wanted to ask him if he knew anything about the woman. Some clue about what makes a person do a thing like that. But we never talked about it, and for the rest of my time at Rattlesnake Middle School, whenever my mind wandered and I stared at the gray sky and thought how I’d tackle a shooter from behind and take his gun, I’d see the woman slumped over her steering wheel. Her brown hair. The pink fin of her ear. And I knew I’d just stay under my desk, praying to be left alone.

Maxim Loskutoff grew up in Missoula, Montana. After leaving home, he worked in hospitals in Dallas and Chicago, on campaign trails, and in the Middle East. He's been awarded fellowships from Writers Omi at Ledig House, Ox-Bow, Jentel Arts, Caldera, the Brush Creek Foundation, and NYU Abu Dhabi. His stories have been published or are forthcoming in The Southern Review, The Gettysburg Review, Narrative, Witness, Hobart, and Willow Springs among other publications. He lives in Oregon.

Illustration by Taylor Baldry.

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