by JOSH McCOLOUGH
Trevor stood under the shade of a hackberry tree while salvage guys with plasma cutters freed chunks of the minivan from the nose of the train. They tossed gleaming metal husks onto a flatbed wrecker, while paramedics and the coroner completed their grim work along the line. There wasn’t enough tarp, but they did their level best to conceal obvious remains. Trevor opened a tin of dip and threw in a big pinch. Almost seven years on the job, and not so much as a close call. Smoked more than a few deer, coyotes and raccoons that grew fat and slow scavenging in the Chicago suburbs. But this. Looked like the vehicle had been bombed. He spit brown onto the grass and pushed it in with his steel toe boot.
“Six dead, one survivor,” the officer said to a group of reporters huddled around him.
The men working the wreckage did so behind a makeshift canvas utility screen that blew open to reveal teases of the twisted wreck to bystanders behind yellow tape. Sometimes the men would stop and whistle for the coroner, who rushed over with a box of latex gloves and a plastic bag. The police set up a perimeter and cordoned off two hundred or so yards of track and streets that ran along them—beautiful, suburban Chicago streets lined with Japanese tree lilacs, red oaks and river birches. Things that bloomed and died in tremendous bursts of color—crimson, ochre, gold. The colors of fire.
His memory of the incident sharpened as the nicotine leached into his gums. The commuter train, inbound to Chicago, Trevor at the sticks, approached the Center Street Station at an exact and appropriate speed of 36 miles per hour, decelerating. A 1998 Chrysler Town & Country minivan, forest green with cheap gold-painted wheel covers, crossed into Trevor’s field of vision forty-two yards before the Center Street Station and all forms of hell broke. The minivan attempted a late maneuver around the crossing gates, but lodged itself between the street and the arm. Trevor sounded the horn—a hellhound’s belly moan that ripped a hole in the quiet mantle of the suburb—dumped the air pressure, switched on the ditch lights and applied the emergency brakes. Then the impact, which is where things were still hazy for Trevor. Physics was in the train’s favor, but still—not so much as a thud or a rumble or a jolt forward. The force of the impact was something on the order a car hitting a butterfly. A cloud shot up—dust and glass and smoke and plastic. A serpent’s tongue of debris, licking the window of his cab. After impact, the engine pushed the minivan a quarter of a mile just beyond the station.
Trevor exited his perch and surveyed the damage. A woman on the platform in a beautiful grey pencil skirt and white blouse dropped her work bag, bent forward and vomited.
One survivor. One survivor. In the midst of the holy mess was a ten-year old boy. Improbable in every physical sense, if you’d have seen it. Some pocket of the metal wreckage—a perfect, untouched nest thatched with bent steel and jagged edges and crushed plastic and glass—preserved the boy from joining the others. Crews pulled him from the minivan without so much as a snag in his T-shirt. Witnesses clapped. News crews from Chicago jockeyed for perfect shots of the boy, who fairly radiated Our Lead Story Tonight as he perched on the back of an ambulance, swaddled in a paramedic’s navy jacket, “EMS” in yellow lettering across the back. The reporters bandied the word “miracle” about. It was the god-damnedest thing Trevor had ever seen.
Maybe the boy was Superman. Or Jesus? Maybe. Anyway, if people had a lifetime of luck in reserves, this kid spent all of it. Should’ve been killed with the rest of them, Trevor thought.
Reporters on the scene discerned at the speed of live, late-breaking news, the families’ names, that that they were from Mexico, and that Trevor (“That man, over there”) was the engineer operating the train. One reporter jogged awkwardly through uneven grass over to Trevor, pressed his business card into Trevor’s hand and said, “Kid won’t make it a week before INS has him on his way back to Mexico, guaranteed. Look, I know you were operating the train. Can I get your name? Just give me this one. Fuck the rest of these fucking TV hacks, and give me the exclusive. What do you say? Help a brother out?”
Trevor retreated back toward the train, the reporter shouting after him, “Give me a call—you’ll be off for a while. I’ll buy you a beer. You’ll need it!”
The NTSB investigator explained to Trevor that he’d be interviewed, would need to take a drug test, had to relinquish his cell phone—texting these days, you know?—and there would be a thorough review of the engine’s data system and the gates for indications of malfunction. The investigator, who also handed Trevor his card, added, “But looks pretty cut and dried, pretty much. We have these blinking gates for a reason. Nothing you could do. Sad.”
Reporters were called off to the scene of a shooting downtown, and the hovering choppers whup-whupped away to begin monitoring the afternoon commute. Emergency crews relaxed their pace amid the thick spice of gasoline and smoldering tires. Now the dead were dead, and the boy was alive, in the back of an ambulance by himself. They had triage-tagged him by sticking a piece of white surgical tape across his forehead, and in black Sharpie scrawled “Rafael” in clean and steady script. Rafael didn’t seem to mind or have any notion of removing it. The boy wasn’t in shock, but he also wasn’t in the world as it existed for everyone else, that much was clear. Trevor felt compelled to make contact with the boy. He needed to hear his voice. He wondered if a miracle could speak, what it sounded like. Trevor approached him, and watched as the boy’s eyes met his.
Rafael’s face broke. He shrieked a banshee’s song that emanated from a rare and bottomless trauma. EMS crews and the NTSB guy rushed over and pulled Trevor away.
“Nope, nope. You shouldn’t be talking to him or anyone else, right now, okay?”
“A dónde fueron? A dónde fueron?” Rafael screamed over and over.
Where did they go? Where did they go?
That night, Trevor’s body was exhausted, but his mind pinged from earlier. The woman kept vomiting. It was yellow, and drops got on her grey skirt. Rafael kept screaming. Trevor paced his apartment, furnished with hand-me-downs from his parents after they downsized to a condo in Florida. The white crushed velvet couch that, growing up, Trevor’s parents protected like it was made of spider silk now had beer stains and pizza sauce crusted onto it. The cabinet that held his mother’s collection of crystal and antique figurines now held a softball trophy, empty Tupperware and stained coffee mugs. His dad’s La-Z-Boy, which still held traces of pipe smoke deep in its fabric that would be released each time Trevor planted himself in it.
The railroad forced him to take a one-month paid leave, as was their policy whenever an engineer had an incident. They didn’t call it an “accident,” it was an “incident.” Something about ascribing fault before a thorough investigation. Trevor tried to refuse the leave, uncomfortable with the notion of being at home all day, but his boss Don—a stout Chicagoan with green-inked forearms—waved his thick hands at Trevor to get lost.
“No choice, my friend,” Don said. “Company policy. Go fishing up to Delavan or Winnebago. Musky are big as your fuckin’ leg. Text me if you need anything. Or if you want me to come fishin’ with you.”
Trevor didn’t fish. He worked. He’d moved to Chicago for a woman he married and then caught cheating not more than a year after the wedding. He came back to their apartment after trading the second stretch of a double shift and found her with some guy, heels to Jesus on the couch. This guy—this stranger, naked and fumbling for his clothes—stammered, “Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit.” Trevor blocked the door. His wife called out, “Matt, wait! Trevor, don’t!” Matt. Matt? Trevor stunned Matt with a jab to his nose, then dropped Matt with a right cross, opening up a gash under Matt’s adulterous eye. Blood poured forth. Next thing he knew, Trevor was on top of Matt, throttling Matt until Matt was quite unconscious.
Trevor didn’t fish. He worked. Worked to ruin his marriage. Worked to get over his ruined marriage.
Without work, Trevor knew how he would spend his time. And the next afternoon, after a sleepless night, Trevor wandered down Ashland toward the inevitable. The July sun reflected off of the mid-rises, and javelins of dirt and sidewalk trash blew in his face. He ducked into the air-conditioned darkness of Tai’s Bar and ordered a bourbon. The Cubs were playing a day game on the Trinitron TV atop the corner of the bar. Two on-duty Chicago cops hunched at the far end, drinking Old Style and watching the game. The cavernous bar smelled like beer-stained wood and cigarettes. Trevor had a Benadryl in his pocket for his allergies, which had come on strong of late, and he popped it and washed it down with the first bourbon. He ordered another.
He wondered about Rafael. Would he really be deported? Where the fuck did they even take him after the wreck? Trevor wished the boy far gone. Didn’t want to run into him someplace. He couldn’t help imagining what the boy had seen. How fucking terrified was he as the train barreled into them? Maybe he didn’t see anything—maybe he was napping and woke up to someone pulling him from remains. Damnedest thing.
The Benadryl took hold, and Trevor’s shoulders eased down toward the bar and his brain felt like it had teeth and claws and he ordered another bourbon. The bar filled up as work let out, and Trevor sipped his bourbon and felt something like warmth. He thought about Rafael until the bar was packed and he thought, or maybe he said aloud to someone, “The world ain’t gonna miss his family, you know.”
Trevor awoke on his couch to a hangover’s parched throbbing, and a screeching noise in his head—it sounded like a car’s rubber belt slipping on the metal pulley. While the DTs died a slow death throughout the day, the shrieking noise grew louder, stronger. More sustained. It hurt Trevor’s teeth. He took aspirin. He doubled up on water. It didn’t go away. In fact, it grew to such an insistent pitch that he turned off his lights and drew his curtains. He stuffed his ears with cotton balls, but the shrieking throbbed with the beat of his heart, with the blood pulsing in his ears. The noise pierced the front of his head, and he panicked. Sweat dripped down the back of his neck. Was he having a heart attack? Were heart attacks noisy affairs? A stroke? Perhaps he was going crazy.
Around eight o’clock that night, he hailed a cab and went to a clinic.
The high-pitched noise traveled with him in the cab and then the waiting room, which was empty save for an old Hispanic woman with an amputated foot who complained to the receptionist every couple of minutes that she just needed medications for her sugars.
The noise shimmered in Trevor’s head. Crazy, Trevor thought. I’m only going crazy. I’m not dying. The noise traveled with him into the exam room, where he sat atop the table and shifted uncomfortably on the white sanitary paper. When he was still, the noise grew louder. He grasped a corner of the thin sanitary paper and rolled it back and forth into a tiny tube between his thumb and index finger. The fluorescent lights in the ceiling shivered and clicked.
The doctor—a cheerful Indian man—examined Trevor’s ears and tested his hearing with a tuning fork, which he hadn’t seen since he was in grade school.
“What volume would you say the noise is at right now? Ten being intolerably loud, zero being you don’t hear anything.”
“An eight. Maybe an eight-point-five,” Trevor said, not exaggerating.
“I see. That’s fairly high, then. Do you understand that all other conditions being equal, one doesn’t typically hear such sounds? Which is to say, I am not hearing what you claim to be hearing right now.”
“Yes. I know that.”
“You mentioned an accident at work. What was the nature of this accident?”
Trevor described it to him, and the doctor’s eyes widened.
“Oh, that’s most unfortunate,” he said, crossing his arms. The doctor pointed in air with an ah-ha flourish. “Well, I have good working hypothesis. You’re not crazy. I believe what you are experiencing is actually quite normal. For certain people, that is. Stress and anxiety can cause what we call ‘simple auditory hallucinations,’ which are exactly what you’re describing—not voices telling you to kill someone, but humming, buzzing or your so-called shrieking sounds. Patients who have experienced or witnessed a trauma may report, later on, auditory or visual hallucinations. It’s common with PTSD. But the noises, as you describe them, are, in fact, not real.”
“Damnedest thing,” Trevor said, rubbing his neck.
The doctor prescribed 0.5mg haloperidol, and sent Trevor on his way.
Other than giving Trevor a quicker, more unsteady drunk than without it, the Haldol didn’t work. A circuit had shorted inside his brain, and the jukebox wouldn’t shut off. The noises in Trevor’s head kept him up at nights, and made the days excruciating. Plugging his ears made the sound in his head louder. The white noise of the normal world seemed to help dampen the shrieking. A little. He tried listening to classical music, jazz, classic rock, heavy metal, speed metal. He listened to talk radio, hypnosis CDs, white noise CDs. Heavy rain, thunder, blue noise, pink noise, white noise, light rain, ocean waves, light stream, rainforest, crickets, frogs. The screeching lingered. He went to a library—which he hadn’t done since grade school, and was surprised to find that it smelled as he remembered—and looked up articles on PTSD and auditory hallucinations and schizophrenia and migraines. He thumbed through medical journal articles far beyond his comprehension, trying to fit word fragments together like singular puzzle pieces of blue sky. The team studied 43 adult patients claiming to experience both auditory and visual hallucinations by establishing first a baseline of 50 whole-brain T2-weighted images of each subject’s brain. Gradient-echo echoplanar MR images were acquired using a 1.5-T scanner fitted with Advanced NMR hardware and software (SenSystems, Danville, Ill.). In each of 14 noncontiguous planes parallel to the intercommissural (AC-PC) plane, 40 to 100 T2-weighted MR images depicting BOLD contrast were acquired with TE = 40 milliseconds, TR = 3000 milliseconds, in-plane resolution = 3.1 mm, slice thickness = 7 mm, slice = skip 0.7 mm.
He photocopied pages of books about train accidents, car accidents, airplane accidents. Survivors, victims. Trauma, healing. Depression, suicide. Risperidone, olanzapine, pimavanserin, clozapine, N-acetylcysteine, and quetiapine. Yoga, meditation, biofeedback, Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy.
Therapy. Therapy. His insurance covered six visits to a cheap shrink, who kept asking him about his childhood, and when he balked, prescribed more Haldol.
Trevor attended a support group that Don recommended to him of other train engineers who had survived wrecks. Their incidents had all been suicides. The broken men recounted stories of being the last person to make meaningful, sustained eye contact with whatever desperate soul decided to plant their final kiss on the nose of a Metra engine. They would look up at the engineers, as if for absolution. Sometimes they knelt down on the tracks and leaned their heads forward. Maybe they were praying. Maybe they just wanted to make sure the train made perfect contact with the part of them that brought them there. Head-first into the abyss. The men in the support group had broken voices and broken eyes, and when they spoke, bottom lips quivered and throats intercepted words before they could make it to their bone-dry tongues.
When it was Trevor’s turn to share, he faltered. “I really didn’t see much. I just know I wiped quite a few people off the face of the earth, you know, in one fell swoop. I mean, based on the official report. I don’t know. I don’t know. It was just the damnedest thing.”
The shrieking filled his head.
Zinc, B12, ginkgo biloba. A head shop in Hyde Park that sold crystals, incense, loose tea, beads and lots of glass pipes. A lone girl with blue and pink hair sat behind the counter, flipping through a yoga magazine. She ignored Trevor, who browsed the aisles of incense and pillboxes of crystals. He stared at the girl, who stared at her magazine. Trevor hadn’t slept a full night in weeks, and so in that moment he considered that he might be dead. Perhaps she didn’t look at him because he wasn’t really there. He was a ghost. He left the shop and sat on a bench, and tried to remember everything he had done that day. Then that week. Then since the accident. He couldn’t. The noise in his head mixed with the high-pitched brakes and pressure release psssssssssstttt of a city bus and the traffic on Lakeshore Drive. A Harley-Davidson. A souped-up Honda with a muffler tip that sounded like a chainsaw.
Horns. Horns. Horns.
Just beyond the drive was Lake Michigan. A thin, white cotton of fog rested just above the water. Trevor held his head and pushed in his eyeballs. He thought about Rafael. Trevor couldn’t remember the week, but he could recall close details on Rafael’s face. Puckers in a round, olive chin as the boy screamed. Clear snot dripping over the cusp of his top lip. Thin, swollen eyes. Goddamn.
Trevor called Don and asked him for another month off.
While having a bourbon at Tai’s, Trevor fished out the reporter’s card from the afternoon of the accident. The incident. Chuck Bransky, Suburban News Editor, Chicago Tribune. Trevor called from the bar, half in the bag and unsure of what exactly Chuck would be able to do for him. Trevor asked about the kid—about Rafael. Chuck told Trevor that Rafael had not been deported. The boy was living with extended family in a suburb not far from the accident itself.
“Isn’t that crazy?” Chuck asked Trevor.
Chuck had done a follow-up story to the accident about the dilemma that immigrant families face with respect to burying the dead. It is too expensive to send bodies back to their homeland for burial, but family from the homeland can’t get into the country to attend funerals here. Either way, someone loses. Except the corpse. The corpse has already lost plenty, Trevor figured.
“Anyway, it’s one of those little-known pain-in-the-ass things people don’t think about, you know? You got a body, you’re thousands of miles from home, etcetera-etcetera,” Chuck said. “So what’s your deal? The story is kinda cold by now, my friend, but maybe I could do something human-interesty about a Metra engineer visiting the survivor of an accident. Oh. Yeah, I like that. Not exactly Pulitzer shit, but could be good.”
“I’d like to see him,” Trevor said, the noise shrill in his ears.
“Yeah. This could be good. This accident is the tragedy that keeps on giving. It’s fucking brilliant. We’ll go out to see the boy together. I’ll bring a photographer and maybe even a sound guy to get video of it. ‘Content,’ they call it. Everything is ‘content’ for our website. Whatever, a story’s a fucking story, you know what I mean?”
Trevor didn’t care. He wanted to see Rafael. He wanted to bear witness to the boy living a life among extended family. He wanted to hug the boy. Trevor knew he wasn’t thinking straight. He didn’t care.
Chuck picked up Trevor in a news van.
“WGN may want to cover it, if it pans out,” he said to Trevor. “You know, if it’s compelling.”
Trevor popped a Haldol and Benadryl. His head felt like an open wound, and the shrieking sound made the underside of his jaw ache.
Chuck didn’t shut up the whole ride out of the city. He and his photographer talked newsroom cuts, pay cuts, Internet killing the newspaper business. Chuck tossed small talk to Trevor. Where you from? Why did you become an engineer? What does it pay? Are you shitting me—that much? Christ, we’re in the wrong business, right? Christ. Un-fucking-believable.
They hit construction traffic and the van and the conversation halted for a while. The noise in Trevor’s head blared and pitched, trying to settle on a frequency. He thought maybe he’d fallen off to sleep, and then Chuck started up again.
“Hey, here’s a fun fact. You know what ‘Rafael’ means?” Chuck asked Trevor.
“‘God has healed.’ What do you think about that?” Chuck turned to the photographer. “Maybe the kid has been healed and is like a fucking straight-A student.”
“I just hope we don’t get shot,” the photographer said. “I read somewhere that the crime out here is worse than in the city.”
“Bull-fucking-shit,” Chuck said. “Just because it looks like we’ve entered fucking East L.A. doesn’t mean it’s all ese’s out here.” Chuck gazed out the window. “Or maybe you’re right. Lock the doors, kids.”
Rafael’s house was in a crumbling neighborhood. Porches once glorious and proud, festooned with flower boxes and hanging plants were now littered with discarded lamps, seatless chairs and iron bed frames. Teen boys in white tank tops gathered on porch steps. They had faces like pit bulls. Chuck stopped the car at the curb, checking the address on his phone against the peeling numbers on the porch column.
“I think this might be our place,” Chuck said. “Anyone speak Spanish?”
A teenage girl was curled on porch steps, head buried in her phone, texting. The house had an old concrete ribbon driveway, overgrown with weeds that sprouted up between cracks. Trevor hadn’t seen one of those since his grandmother’s house when he was young. He and his sister would race on their roller skates up and down the two paths. Trevor always had the left track and his sister had the right, and their arms were just long enough that if they reached across the grass strip, they could bump the other off their track. The driveway tracks dead-ended at a garage behind the house with a door that didn’t go all the way down on one side. It looked like a crooked, toothless grin. Back by the garage, a collection of boys of different ages dribbled a basketball—the older, bigger boys took turns donking the ball off the backs of the younger boys’ heads. One of them had to be Rafael.
Chuck and his photographer began unloading equipment from the van onto a dolly—lighting and sound cases, a boom mic tipped with a windscreen that looked like a duster, a camera bag, a remote pickup unit transmitter. The photographer loaded all of it onto the dolly and heaved it forward up the ribbon drive, digging his feet into the split concrete chunks to get enough traction. Chuck walked across the grass and started talking to the girl on the porch, who appeared not to care because it took her a while to be coaxed away from her phone screen.
“Rafi!” she called out, craning her head out from under the porch. “Rafi! El hombre que mató a tu familia está aquí.”
The photographer gained momentum with the heavy equipment on the dolly, up the ribbon drive, toward the boys, who stared. From their group, a boy exploded forth, screaming. He held a wooden bat in his hand and ran down the driveway, directly at the photographer pushing the equipment. The photographer, his head down, pushing the cart, looked up to see Rafael bearing down on him with the baseball bat. Rafael struck him just once across his jaw, which cracked and sent the photographer to the ground.
The girl screamed, “Rafi! No! No! Que no es él!”
The other boys near the garage scattered across the yard in every direction, and the teens down the street, aware of the commotion and sensing an impending police presence, did too. The equipment rolled backward against the photographer, who lay on the ground, writhing and holding his bloodied face. The girl came down off the porch and stood over the photographer, unsure what to do. She took one look at his face—the white bone pink with blood, piercing the photographer’s cheek, and she bent over and vomited.
Trevor climbed up the footboard steps to the catwalk and into the engine’s cabin. It was about twenty-five degrees outside at seven p.m., and he fired the auxiliary to heat up the cabin. The cold, vinyl-covered seat shot through his jeans and straight to his groin. It reminded him of winter days on the school bus when he was one of the first kids on the stop, before the bus had a chance to heat up. Don had pulled some strings and got Trevor a transfer to the Southern Transcon for long-haul work. He still couldn’t make sense of the desert weather. How could it be this damned cold this far south? His conductor—a silent, long-haired guy named Thompson—was his only partner on the 270-mile subdivision leg from Belen, New Mexico, to Winslow, Arizona. Trevor fired the main engine, and Thompson checked and double-checked the cargo. Nearly ten thousand feet of intermodal shipping containers, double-stacks, reefers, bulk and aluminum gondolas of coal or aggregate. Thompson climbed in and swirled his finger in the air and pointed it onward. Trevor throttled the engine and sounded the horn. “And away we go,” was all Thompson offered by way of conversation, short of calling out signals or spotting weather.
The haul out of Belen was vast and quiet. Once Trevor made it outside the town’s reaches, he felt better. Peaceful. The landscape unfolded before him as if in a dream. A pair of old semaphore signals rose up from the ground above the brush and saguaro as they cleared town and rushed into the desert. The long mountain stretches through cottonwoods, feathergrass, bluestem and saltbush going out in every direction toward God. Mt. Taylor to his north, its white peaks hovering over Trevor’s right shoulder for hours. Route 66 meandered about the tracks along the way darting from one side to the other, and cars out there didn’t care much about the crossing gates. He’d had more than a few close calls, and figured it would only be a matter of time.
The weight of the train and its cargo pushed Trevor ever closer to the setting sun until the watermelon sky turned pitch. Trevor would look over at Thompson, who might be asleep or staring off into expansive dark, and he’d check his instruments. If Trevor stared long enough at the illuminated tracks ahead, it appeared they were going backwards rather than forward. Once on the route, in the night’s deepest hold, out past Gallup with the lit desktop instruments glowing green, he swore he saw the minivan at a crossing ahead and checked his eyes. Happened to him a few times, actually, but it didn’t bother him much. And sometimes at a crossing he’d hear what Don and the older engineers called a “phantom strike.” Spectral aftershocks from that one time when. The shrieking would temporarily pierce his skull, and his stomach would jitter, and he’d slide open the window and stick his whole head out and gaze at the cargo stretching back into nothingness but 18,000 horses beneath him and thousands of tons behind him, from desert to mountains and more desert. It was the damnedest thing.
About the Author
Josh McColough is a writer in the suburbs of Chicago. He received his MFA from the University of Iowa's Nonfiction Writing Program where he was the recipient of the Iowa Arts Scholarship. In recent years, he's found stronger truth and greater comfort in writing fiction. This is his second published short story.
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