Tracks

by Cat Connor


Sunlight wound its way through tiny clean spots on grime-covered windows. It went mostly unnoticed by the hundreds of people using the train station in the late afternoon rush hour.

A flash of light caused Jetta to stop and look up. A tiny malformed rainbow danced high on a wall in front of her. She followed its path back to a grubby window on the other side of the station. People jostled and bumped as they hurried past her on the stairs. Jetta stood a little longer marveling at the tiny rainbow. She smiled.

An elbow come from nowhere and smacked her fair in the head.

“Ouch!” she yelped and rubbed her head.

The owner of the elbow spun to look at her. “I’m so sorry!” he said, and his hand touched her arm.

She felt like snapping You will be at him. The rainbow still hovered high on the wall; she bit back her annoyance.

“I’m fine.”

“I’m really sorry, did I hurt you?”

“A little, but I’m fine.” Jetta moved forward into the descending throng of people in front of her, leaving the man and his elbow behind.

She hooked her tote bag strap higher onto her shoulder, while searching the concourse for the correct platform. Signs swung from hooks in the breeze above the ten platforms. Their chalked destinations smudged over time. It appeared that the signs were unhooked and moved to new platforms, rather than new signs written for the rush hours each day.

Jetta determined they could probably get away with that once or twice more before the signs became unreadable.

She searched, checked her wristwatch, searched again, then on the far side she caught sight of her train. Jetta counted off six carriages. She noted the closest ones were almost empty as opposed to the ones nearer the front.

She saw no sense being crammed next to someone who tried to engage in conversation or spend the entire forty-five minute journey obnoxiously using his or her cell phone. It wasn’t worth the irritation just to get to the northern edge of her platform quicker.

She chose to seat herself in the front of the very back carriage, picking a seat that faced toward the station itself. She didn’t mind the feeling of traveling backwards.

She settled in and noted she’d chosen the carriage well.

There weren’t many people to contend with. She saw two student types sitting right up front, an elderly man by the first set of doors, and a mother with a toddler toward the back.

She watched the child for a few minutes. It was a jammy child, one of those perpetual sticky children. It looked like it had eaten an entire jar of strawberry jam. Sticky-faced, slimy-handed, dribble-covered chin. She wanted to wash it and disinfect everything it touched. There was no telling if the sticky creature was male or female, and it mattered little to her; sticky was sticky.

She shifted her gaze to the gray concrete platform beyond the dirty window beside her.

The train moved off, but the scenery barely changed. Grime worked well as a filter and even, she speculated, as a modesty panel. She’d inadvertently stumbled upon another good reason to resist cleaning the glass shower door at home.

Jetta drifted into travel mode. Her mind wandered over the events of the day and stalled, perplexed by a problem at work. She gave the problem her undivided attention. Mulling over the possibilities and scouring the reasons behind the email she’d received before leaving work for the day.

It was unusual to have missing explosives. Why would anyone run the risk of stealing demolition-grade explosives from a building site? Not only did they have security guards at all sites using explosives, but they had cameras as well.

Jetta leaned back and closed her eyes. She was confident the culprit’s capture was imminent. There was no doubt in her mind that the explosives would be found.

A sudden shudder then a huge jolt threw Jetta forward. Her head smacked into the top edge of the seat in front of her. A thunderous bang shook the train, brakes screeched metal on metal, and made her teeth ache.

“Ouch!” Jetta said as she struggled back into her seat. This time no one apologized.

She glanced at the people she shared the carriage with. Everyone was shaken, some looked stirred. She smiled at her own cleverness. The sticky child squawked loudly as its mother clutched at it.

Her attention shifted to the window, turning her head and craning her neck to see toward the front of the train. Was it smoke she saw billowing? She peered out, squinting through small gaps in the grease. Smoke or an illusion?

When an answer didn’t immediately lodge in her aching head, she scanned the interior for a conductor. The mother at the far end tried to attract her attention. Thoughts of terrorism entered her head. Did we hit something? Was there an explosion?

Jetta scrunched down in her seat, and fossicked about in her handbag for her cell phone while muttering under her breath, “Don’t make eye contact with crazy people.”

Her hands searched the black interior of her bag. She peered into the dark depths, hoping to spot the silver case or the green blinking light of her cell phone.

Something dark dripped onto her bag. Before she could investigate, a door banged behind her and a booming voice echoed down the carriage. “Everyone please make their way toward me.”

Jetta sat up straight and looked back over her shoulder. The booming voice belonged to a harried looking man. He seemed mildly familiar.

Her fingers curled around the comforting shape of her cell phone. She extracted her hand from the bag. Holding the phone tightly, she watched the man.

His eyes settled on her. He smiled reassuringly. “My name is Bill. I am going to help you all get out,” he announced as he leveled with her.

His shirt bore rips and sooty marks. His face was grazed, his arms deeply scratched and grime-covered. Jetta looked back down the carriage to the others.

He touched her shoulder. She looked up at him. He met her gaze with an uncomfortable scrutiny. He seemed satisfied with whatever it was he searched for within her eyes.

“I’ll be back for you in a sec; let me deal with the oldies,” Bill said.

Keys jangled in his hand as Bill moved on to help the elderly couple to their feet. “Come on, ma’am; sir, I’ll help you off. There’s a bit of a step, I’m afraid.”

Jetta rested her head on the cool window, watching Bill and his rescue efforts as best she could.

He shoved a key into the box by the door, turned it, and then pressed two buttons. The door jerked, opened two inches, and stalled. Bill braced himself against the train, jammed his hands into the gap, and using brute strength forced the doors open.

“Thank you,” the elderly man said.

Bill jumped out onto the ground below. He reached back into the carriage and plucked the old lady from the bottom step, setting her lightly on the shingle beside the track.

He took the man’s arm and encouraged him from the step.

“I want you to get off the tracks as quickly as you can,” Bill said.

Jetta strained to hear more, but couldn’t; all she could hear was the crunching of gravel under foot as the old couple moved away. There were lots of crunching sounds outside. It sounded as if many people were moving around, but she couldn’t see anyone.

As she looked back to the aisle the mother and child had leveled with her seat. The sticky child squawked even louder when Jetta looked at it.

“My name is Marge,” said the woman then indicated the dreadful sticky creature in her arms. “This is Nell.”

Jetta shuddered. Her body shrank away from the wriggly beastie. “I’m Jetta.”

She heard Bill’s voice. “Come on ma’am, I’ll help you and the little one.”

The woman smiled down at her. She pressed a packet of wet wipes into Jetta’s hand, and then disappeared with Bill out the door. Jetta sat staring at the packet wondering why the woman gave them to her. Surely, she could have used them to clean the horrid sticky child in her arms.

She realized she was alone in the carriage. Why hadn’t she tried to leave? Jetta thought carefully. Something very strange was going on. Why hadn’t she simply gotten off the train like everyone else?

Bill smiled as he strode toward her. “Your turn,” he said.

Her phone fell from her hand. Bill reached down and picked it up.

“You’re him! You’re the guy who elbowed me on the stairs.”

Bill pressed the phone back into her hand and answered, “Guilty as charged.”

She slumped in the seat. Nothing made any sense. She looked at him properly, taking in everything she saw and comparing him to the man on the stairs. Fifteen minutes ago, he was in an immaculate dark blue suit with striped tie. He wore no jacket now. His long-sleeved white business shirt hung torn and dirty. He’d rolled his sleeves up, revealing cuts and abrasions to his arms. Black smudges of sooty grime covered his face. Sweat tracked in streaks twisting over grazes, and bleeding scratches.

“You’re not a conductor, are you?”

“No.” He was kneeling next to her. He took the packet of wipes from her and pulled a handful out. He folded them into a thick pad.

“How did you do the thing with the door?”

“When you ride the train as often as I do, you learn a few things,” Bill replied.

“The keys?”

“Found them on the floor of another carriage.”

He pressed a wad of wipes to her head. Jetta tried to push him away. “I’m fine.”

“I’m sure you are.” His hand didn’t move.

“Can we leave now?” Being there didn’t feel safe.

“Can you stand?”

Jetta didn’t understand the question, of course she could stand, how did she get on the train if she couldn’t stand?

“I bumped my head, that’s all, its fine. I’m fine. Can we just go?”

He adjusted his position so he could stand but still maintain pressure on her forehead.

“That’s really annoying,” Jetta grumbled, “And not necessary.”

“Trust me; it is necessary.” He inspected her head. “It’s not looking too bad now.”

“What isn’t?” she asked, standing slowly.

“Let’s get outside,” he said.

She took her bag from the seat beside her and dropped her phone in it. Bill kept his hand on her head. He held her firmly at the elbow with his free arm and escorted her to the doorway.

“Hold onto the railing, let me go first then I’ll lift you.” Bill hooked her hand around the rail by the door, then jumped. A second later he set her safely on the ground. “Okay?”

“Yes, I’m fine,” she replied, annoyance resounded long and loud in her voice. “What did I do to my head?”

He had hold of her elbow again and walked her away from the area.

“You gashed your head badly,” he replied.

“Really? It feels fine. I don’t remember any blood.”

“Yeah. I know.”

“Why?”

Bill explained, “Sometimes when traumatic things happen very quickly, our minds go into protective mode.”

“Okay, that seems reasonable.”

In front of them she could see other people moving away from twisted wreckage. Some people were being carried, some were walking wounded, and others appearing perfectly okay. She saw a woman carried past her by a blood-covered man. Something didn’t look right. Jetta looked again and realized the woman had only one arm.

“Bill,” she said. Her voice had softened and lost the annoyed tone.

“Yes.”

“What happened?”

Sirens filled the air. The noise erupted from all directions at once.

“There was an explosion, from what I could tell, but it wasn’t the train, it was the tracks.”

They turned back to the wreckage. The first two carriages lay buckled and crumpled on top of each other. Twisted rails poked through the wreck at bizarre angles. Beyond the front two carriages, she saw bent, distorted, and mangled track; none of it firmly anchored to the railway sleepers as it should be. Smoke billowed from the twisted wreckage of the third carriage, and the occasional flame leapt into the air. Jetta smelled burning foam rubber from the seats. Bill pulled his tie from his pants pocket and secured the pad of wet wipes to Jetta’s head.

“Now that looks nifty,” he said, admiring his handiwork.

“Thanks.”

She watched another flame and then a face appear at the third carriage window. A child.

“Bill!” Jetta yelled, and pointed at the window. “There’s a child!”

Bill followed her finger. He broke into a run, heading straight for the carriage. Jetta dropped her bag and hurried after him, stumbling on the rough stones, and tripping over pieces of wreckage.

Another man leveled with her.

“What?” he asked.

“We saw a child,” Jetta panted, dodging a hunk of metal. She watched Bill scrambling up the exterior carriage wall. His feet searched for purchase on the door rim. Jetta gasped as he slipped. Bill hung on the upper edge of the doorway by his fingers, legs dangling a good five feet in the air above twisted metal. He hauled himself up and swung through the opening.

The man spoke, “We cleared that carriage, and no one is missing a child.” He seemed quite certain there was no one left inside.

“Anyone die?” Jetta asked.

“Yeah. Twelve or more. The bodies are still in there.”

They reached the door Bill had disappeared through moments before. Jetta listened to the sound of fire popping and Bill calling out.

Time slowed and waiting became tortuous.

The man next to Jetta rocked from foot to foot. “I’m Andrew.”

“Jetta,” she replied, trying to distinguish which noises from inside the carriage meant life.

Andrew spoke, “He’s taking too long. The air inside will be thick with smoke.” He rocked again, stones crunching under his feet.

“Bill!” she hollered.

Filthy fingers curled around the doorway as Bill lurched forward holding a small child with one arm.

“I hope you can catch,” Bill spluttered, crouching down as far as he could and leaning forward with the child. He unfurled the small hands from his shirtsleeve and hung the child down to Jetta. She stretched up and grabbed hold of sturdy legs, pulling them into her arms. The child buried its face into her shoulder and clung to her like a koala bear. She turned and moved out of Bill’s way.

He jumped landing heavily on the rocky ground. Bill bounced to his feet and caught up with Jetta. Andrew looked on stunned and bewildered.

“You okay with him?” Bill asked.

“We’re good,” Jetta replied, her arms wrapped tightly around the child.

They walked as fast they could toward the rescue appliances they could see two hundred yards or so in front of them.

“I think his mom died in there,” Bill told her, “I found him trying to hug a body.”

“That guy, Andrew, said the carriage was clear.”

“The little fellow might have been trapped under his mom, she probably saved his life.”

“How old do you think he is?”

“I doubt he’s two, maybe eighteen months.”

“He’s not even crying,” Jetta said, holding him as close as she could, feeling his heartbeat against her.

“And you know something else?”

“What?” Jetta asked.

“There is no way you could’ve seen his face at the window. He’s way too small to have climbed twisted metal and broken seats to get near that window.”

“Then how?”

“A miracle maybe,” Bill replied.

A paramedic swooped in and wrapped a blanket around Jetta and the child. Another wrapped a blanket around Bill. The first paramedic smiled and said, “We’ll keep you three together, you’ve been through enough without having your family separated now.”

Behind them they could hear Andrew calling out, “Someone needs to recheck these carriages; we may have missed people.”

Jetta smiled at Bill. He grinned back.


Copyright © 2008 by Cat Connor

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