Boxcar Romance

As a kid, I’d watch Milwaukee trains travel through a sleepy Northwestern Washington town tucked inside a small farming community. Watching the trains took my mind off Mom screaming at Dad about spending time with me. I was sure Mom blamed me for their divorce; she just never said it. Watching the trains took my mind off my mother’s drinking. Watching the trains carried my mind far away from this quiet town. The red, green, and yellow boxcars had weathered illegible graffiti sprayed the length of the lower half. I lived on Cherry Hill just above the tracks. Sometimes the engineers would stop and rest in a Pamala’s motel overnight. But when they continued the next day, the engineers would sometimes see me pull my fist up and down. Not even the cold Yakima River in the distance, rushing across dense rocks, could drown out the echo of the horn bouncing through the valley. In the 5th grade, I’d place pennies on the tracks and retrieve the flattened copper. I used to wonder what engineers saw traveling across the Midwestern states. Whatever they saw couldn’t be worse than living in Yakima, Washington. Sure, I had plenty of friends, but most of them used me for my money. My dad was a physician and Mom was a prosecutor and a tough one at that. When she was angry, I felt my insides tie in knots. It put me in the defendant’s shoes, who she sentenced to prison. Besides smoking a blunt here and there, I stuck to the rules, at least as far as Mom knew. 

In high school, I wasn’t into retrieving copper or waving at the engineers; I just knew I wanted to get the hell out of this small town and to meet someone. To fall in love again. And I didn’t need Mom’s help this time.

It was my 17th birthday, and I’d gotten into a fight with Mom. I’d had enough of her telling me who to date and why, and she’d had enough of me questioning her choice of dates. Mom was a control freak, and I couldn’t handle her setting me up with her friends’ daughters. Mom told me she didn’t want me to end up thirty and single. Mom skipped over me being 17 to her being a control freak. We both knew she wanted me to keep up with her wealthy friends and date a young respectable girl. Someone who was going places. But I wasn’t like Mom, and that’s what she didn’t get. Mom had an obsession with me not ending up as miserable as she’d become. Mom’s constant critiques pushed the love of my life into another guy’s arms. Jenna couldn’t take my mother and her goddamn insane standards. I folded clothes and placed them in my backpack, which I zipped and threw over my shoulders.

“Where do you think you’re going?” Mom said, puffing on a cigarette. 

“I can’t take this shit anymore,” I said. “You act as though you know what’s best for me. But you don’t.”

“I’m your mother.” She swung her hand across my face. “And you won’t talk to me like that.” Her finger poked my chest. 

“You know what?” I slammed my eyes shut and blew out my lips. “Move before I move you,” I said. 

“Going to smoke pot, aren’t you?” Mom said. “You know, I could have you arrested.” 

“No, I’m going to rob a bank,” I said. “Now, move.”

“I don’t want you to end up old…and single.”

“Mom, I’m 17!” I said. “Besides, I’m not like you.”

“I get it. You learned to talk to me like this from your father.”

I elbowed my way past her. “Bye, Mom.” I glanced over my shoulder before I closed the door behind me.

“When are you coming back?” I heard her muffled shout.

“Maybe never!” I said louder than I’d wanted to. The cold breeze passed through my thick, dark hair. I zipped my jacket to my chin, and  I used my phone as a flashlight and continued along the path I’d traveled hundreds of times. I noticed a train stopped overnight and wondered if now was the time to travel across the Midwestern states — to get out of here for a while.  Fuck it, I thought. I ain’t got shit else to do. Besides, it’s not like anyone’s going to miss me. I finished smoking a blunt, not caring whether the cops rolled up guns drawn and climbed aboard a boxcar just to see what I could see and who I could find along the way. I settled in and popped open a bottle of chardonnay I stole from Mom and nibble on cheap slices of American cheese when I noticed a woman in the corner, curled in a sleeping bag with a stocking cap covering her ears. I grabbed at my chest and winced.

“What the fuck are you doing here?” I asked. 

“Well, hello to you, too,” she said. “I was here first.”

“What’s with the black eye?” 

The woman crawled to a sitting position. “Look, I don’t want any problems,” she said, puffing a menthol cigarette. 

“You scared the fuck out of me,” I said. I scanned the boxcar. 

“It’s just me,” she said. She dropped her gaze to my bottle. 

“Here.” I handed her the wine. She took a long drink and wiped her mouth with her sleeve. “I got kicked out of the house.” She took another sip. 

“You’re pregnant, aren’t you?”

The woman looked down and away. “I was.”

“Had an abortion?” I asked before I thought it was rude to do so.

Tears trickled down her cheeks. “Well, it’s nice to meet you, too.”

“Look.” I placed my hands in front of my body. “I shouldn’t have asked.”

“You going to judge me, too?”

“No, I wish my mother had an abortion.”

The girl covered her mouth and laughed. “With all these questions, maybe she should have.” The girl gave me a tight-lipped smile, drying her eyes.

“You can’t be more of a fuck up than I am,” I said. 

“Where are you going?” she said. “What are you running from?”

I let out a sigh I didn’t know existed. “Anywhere but here.”

“Me, too,” she said. “I want to get as far as I can from this shithole.”

“We’ll probably miss this sleepy town in a week or two,” I said.

“Speak for yourself,” she said. “I’m going to make something of myself and prove my mother wrong.” 

The train began to roll and gradually move faster before I heard the engine roar.

“What the fuck?” I said. “The engineers must be running late.” The crew usually rested through the night. 

“Well, it is almost Christmas,” she said. “You still have time to jump off,” she said.

Before I knew what I was doing, I crawled closer beside her as the tracks clashed with the wheels, I heard a clank, clank, clank. 

“Ask,” she said loud enough for me to hear. 

“Excuse me?” I raised my voice just as loud.

“I can tell you have questions.” She raised then lowered her arms.

“Let’s start with your name.”

“Shannon. My name is Shannon.”

“I’m Dan.” I reached my hand to hers. “Cold hand,” I said. I unzipped my bag. “Here.” I threw her a blanket. “That sleeping bag isn’t warm enough?”

“Simple name.” Shannon wrapped the blanket around her shoulders.

“Oh, so now you’re going to tease me, too?” I said.

“No, I would have guessed Nathan or Fred is all.”

“So, Shannon.” I opened and closed my hands.

“More questions?” Shannon said in a joking manner. 

“What exactly are you running from? I mean, home can’t be that bad, right?” I said as if I were a school counselor.

“My stepdad used to touch me as a kid.”

“Woah, that was out of left field,” I said. “Are you okay?” 

“That’s what I’m running from,” Shannon said, wiping her eyes with her fingers.

“And that’s why you have the black eye?”

Shannon paused. “I had the nerve to fight him this time, and he wasn’t having it.”

“I am so sorry,” I said with all the sympathy I could muster.  

“I kind of got to tell you something…” Shannon rubbed her temples. “He’s dead.”

“Excuse me?” I said. “Are you saying you killed your stepdad?”

“It was either him or me,” Shannon said and took a bite of a granola bar. “I decided I’ve got some more living to do.”

“Surely, the police are looking for you.”

“He was a police officer.”

“The police department,” I said. “They covered up the abuse allegations, didn’t they?” I stroked my chin. “Do you have access to the records? My mom is a prosecutor; I’m sure she could help you.”

“That’s why my dad beat me. I stole the records from his office, and I wouldn’t tell them where they were,” Shannon said. “Do you think she could nail the police for turning a blind eye to the abuse and get me a reduced sentence?”

“It sounds like self-defense. Besides, my mother wouldn’t be willing to take the political heat for prosecuting a victim of sexual assault. The system really failed you.” 

Shannon’s eyes met mine. “You should be a counselor.”

“If you turn yourself in, she can help you.”

Shannon took another sip of wine. “I don’t know if that’s such a good idea.”

Something about her indecision pulled at my adventurous spirit. “I won’t take no for an answer.”

“Well, look at you. The take-charge kind of man, huh?”

“Part of me wants to leave and change my identity if I have to.”

“Seriously, Shannon. We need to get back to Yakima,” I said. I couldn’t believe I was acting like my mother, working out the details of a nonexistent relationship; this wasn’t like me. Or worse yet, maybe it was like me. 

“Look, I am not looking for a relationship.”

“I’m trying to keep you out of jail.”

“As long as you’re not trying to fuck me.”

“I don’t want to…”

Shannon darted her eyes to mine, raising a sly brow.

“It’s not that I don’t want to. It’s…”

“Relax,” Shannon said. “I know what you meant.”

Dopamine raced through my veins. “What do you say we give my mom a call?”

“I tried using my phone earlier; there’s no service.”

“The train should stop in the morning,” I said. “We’ll find a way back then.”

Shannon plopped her head in my lap and batted her eyes until she couldn’t. I had a thick wool black and a red checkered blanket wrapped around us. 

The light had begun to rise, replacing the darkness, but the hills and the river looked familiar, and the train came to a rolling halt. What the fuck is going on? I thought. I could see the Yakima River and the high school in the distance. A man dressed as a Red Robin waitress appeared with Shannon’s favorite burger and fries and handed me a burger, too. 

“What’s going on?” I asked.

Shannon had begun eating the burger and fries.

I asked again, “What’s going on?”

“It was a setup,” Shannon said. “A blind date kind of thing.”

“So, this was nothing more than a blind date?”

“Our parents both fucked with us and drove us here.”

“You didn’t kill your father?” 

“No, that part is true. I’ve been to see your mother already. She began giving me a second chance and said I’m not as bad as she thought I was.”

“Don’t recognize me, do you?”

I squinted. “It was dark last night.”

Shannon removed her wig. “Remember me now?”

“Jenna, it’s you.”

“I guess your mother felt guilty for ruining our relationship.”

“You knew it was me the entire time?”

“I wanted to play along. My mom said she wanted me to meet someone on a train, so I wore a wig, and a black eye to alter my appearance.”

My mother appeared, holding her hands close to her chest. “I hope you don’t hate me.”

I choked back a lump in my throat. “Just don’t break us up this time.” 

AC

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