This story is by Julia Gaughan and was part of our 2017 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Four children playing together. Soft curls blowing around round, laughing faces. Two tiny toads hopping from hands to ground, sometimes gravel, sometimes wood planks, sometimes the metal. Then captured only to begin again.
Hardly anything happened out here. The nearby overpass provided signs of a world beyond. But these kids, they wondered and wandered about. Charlie and his twin sister Ava, their cousin Beth, and their neighbor Simon were all ten, ready (or not) for fifth grade. These kids could navigate the creek, identify the unfriendly critters, listen for horns and sirens and parental calls to return to those confining yards and bedrooms and kitchens. In the summer like this, they roamed expansively. Fields separated them from civilization. A bag with peanut butter sandwiches, crackers, and oranges slung over someone’s back. Water bottles, often left in one hideout or frequented dwelling but nevertheless reclaimed, usually clutched in hand or clipped to belt loops. One steamy day was spent fashioning ropes to secure them like ammunition belts around chests but whimsy overwhelmed rationality and, though “cool,” these rope fashioned water bottle holders were ultimately unsuccessful at holding said water bottles.
Simon had found his dad’s old iPod, without a touch screen but still with power and plenty of classic rock, random pop, and alt-country standards. He kept it charged and brought it along on these adventures. Some days, they wanted a soundtrack. The kids had found the toads and brought them up to the train tracks to watch/observe/discuss/tame them. Almost every day, they would sit on the tracks to eat their sandwiches — fewer bugs and even fewer trains. Charlie had become especially fond of Lynyrd Skynyrd in the way only 10-year-olds can. The greatest hits blared from the iPod at its highest volume. Everyone was a bit hazy from heat, full stomachs, and wonderment.
These children had not once seen a train on these tracks. The tracks were not abandoned, exactly, but the station in town was shuttered and the kids had never heard of a station agent. Sure, their parents had told them to be careful around the tracks, but the tracks were also full of rocks and splinters and bugs and uneven footing.
Ten miles west of the peanut butter and Lynyrd Skynyrd party, a coal train heading east received an alert to a herd of cattle that had been mistakenly set to pasture on the railroad’s right-of-way. While the railroad employees yelled at the rancher’s employees, an earnest engineer found an alternative path to steer the coal train around the cattle with only minutes delay. This option created time for the various “people-in-charge” to resolve the cattle/right-of-way problem. Sure, this track was not in use but the last track evaluation did not reveal any hazards. No one had any objection. A switch was thrown.
Some school teachers spend their summers traveling or catching up with their children and families. Others, like Doreen, basked in the quiet and solitude. Doreen was one of the gifted teachers for the school district. Since the area was so small, she served the elementary school and shared some additional duties at the high school. She loved what she did. But she was glad for her summers off.
This summer, Doreen had decided to stretch herelf. She had been running for years and with her fortieth approaching, she decided it was time to run some of those big races. Doreen would run a half-marathon that fall. And perhaps a marathon the following spring. Summer days like this one were perfect for long runs out away from the busybodies in her small downtown. Her route brought her up to the overpass, a great spot to stretch and take in the horizon. Not many cars traveled this stretch and the train tracks below were atmospheric, not noisy.
But today, Doreen saw another summer exerciser in her spot. The biology teacher from the high school looked like he was working out, too. Harold was not a runner like Doreen. And if you saw him in regular school-day attire, he would not look like an exerciser. But Doreen had seen him throughout the year make some pretty big changes. His Big Gulps were replaced with water bottles. He was bringing in lunches rather than hitting the a la carte pizza line. Doreen knew Harold’s wife had been battling cancer and assumed these efforts to be healthier were undertaken in earnest. Seeing him heaving on the overpass, Doreen smiled and looked forward to a brief conversation.
Doreen waved at Harold who smiled back at her. He stopped his walk and leaned back against the railing, lifting his water bottle to his mouth.
“How are you doing Harold? I don’t usually see anyone on this route.”
“I started this here Couch to 5K program, Doreen. I think I’m supposed to start running again in 30 seconds but I’m going to try to pause it. I’m out this way avoiding everyone’s advice on my health.”
“I hear ya. If you ever need any running music or podcast recs — let me know. It helps the time pass on those days where it really is hard to run.”
“I’d have to be able to hear over my breathing. But maybe someday.”
They both chuckled. Doreen used the railing as an armrest, bending forward. She saw the children in the distance and smiled.
“Remember those days?”
Harold turned around, eyes lighting up. “Not many parents let ’em roam like that anymore, do they.”
“Unfortunately, no. But I think those might be the Evans’ twins. You work with their dad, right? He seems like something of a country boy.”
Harold squinted a bit. “I think you’re right. Great family. Sweet kids. My oldest sometimes babysits for them. And they made pictures for Vicky when she was in the hospital.”
Harold resumed his rest — facing west, letting the railing support his back. The two teachers reminisced a bit about summers past, enjoying the gentle breeze that offered relief from the sun.
And then, Harold’s expression changed and his body tensed.
“What is that?!” He moved away from the railing and toward the other side of the road. Doreen turned around, eyes widening, mouth dropping open.
They both started yelling, in turn at the train and at the kids. Nothing was changing.
“I can’t run that fast to get to the kids!” Doreen started dialing 911 but there was no signal. Harold was waving and jumping hoping to catch the conductor’s attention or the kids’ attention but nothing was working.
“We’re running out of time.”
“You have to push me over.”
“The train would have to stop.”
“NO, Harold! What are you saying?”
“You’re too small. The train would eventually stop but I’m big enough. It would stop faster.”
“But your wife?! Your kids?!”
“But these kids. I can’t scale this railing but if I start climbing and you help push me, I’ll land on the tracks. You have to do it. You have to do it now.”
Harold started pulling himself up on the railing to go over.
“Doreen. You tell my wife. I love her and our kids. You make sure those kids down there are okay. Don’t let those kids see me.”
Tears streamed down both their faces.
“Are you sure?”
Harold started reciting the 23rd Psalm.
“I need you to push me forward Doreen. Now. NOW!”
Doreen screamed and heaved and pushed up.
She looked over the railing. Harold was on the ground. Clearly not dead as evidenced by his movement to put himself into a better position to stop the train. He slowly stood up, arms raised.
Doreen started running to the edge of the overpass, trying to figure out a way down toward the kids, trying to avoid seeing what was going to –
Then horns started blaring, brakes started screeching.
The children looked up, frozen in fear, and saw a man no longer standing on the tracks. They didn’t know how to process what they were seeing. Ava grabbed her brother, which seemed to spur them all into action. They slid down the side of the embankment. Crying and screaming and moving. They saw a woman scaling down the rocks by the overpass. The train halting before their eyes. “Sweet Home Alabama” lingered in the air.