By T.J. Baer
He has a split second to decide—jump or stay—so he jumps. Air roars past his ears and he slams onto the back of the train with an impact that judders through his bones, and then he’s scrabbling to get a handhold while his lower half dangles madly off the edge. His fingernails scrape cold metal but finally find purchase, and he manages to haul himself fully onto the roof just as the train swerves onto a new track and then onto a bridge.
His heart feels like it’s trying to pound its way out of his ribcage, but he forces himself to push away his fear and drag himself forward, inch by inch until he’s close enough to the roof access hatch to open it with numb fingers and lower himself into the dimness beyond.
He lands on his feet, then his knees and elbows, and luckily he’s too numb with fear and cold to notice the pain. As his eyes adjust to the dim interior of the train car, cop instincts dulled by years of grief and whiskey tell him that he’s in a storage car—endless stacks of boxes fill the space, and he can just make out the outline of a door about ten feet away. The door is slightly ajar, and when he presses his face to the crack, he sees her.
She is small and brown and crying, unruly black hair wrangled into braids with the help of four purple ribbons. She wears a puffy pink coat and a blue princess skirt, and her hands are scrunched into the fabric of the skirt, clenching and unclenching as she cries. Her face is different, but everything else about her screams Elsie, and although he knew when he saw her snatched from her yard that she wasn’t his daughter—a little gravestone on the hillside, pink ribbons scattered across the coffin instead of flowers—that doesn’t change the fact that he has to save her.
The men who grabbed her are standing in the corner of the car, arguing in low voices and jabbing fingers at a map. Why did they grab her? Why are they holding her? What do they think it will gain them? Their backs are to the girl as if the possibility of her escape hasn’t even occurred to them, and they never notice as he creeps up to her and, pressing a finger to his lips, stretches out his hand.
She looks up at him with Elsie’s big brown eyes, and there’s a moment when he wonders if she’s going to scream or flinch back or do something to give the game away. But she just gives him a watery smile and takes his hand, and they tiptoe through the door he came in through and into the storage car.
Her hand is warm in his, small and trusting, and he realizes that he has no idea how to get off this train, no idea where it’s even going. But then the train shakes and groans and slows, and just as he figures out how to work the handle to open the exterior door, the train shudders to an inexplicable halt in the middle of a snow-dusted field. It doesn’t make sense, and he wonders if this is another dream.
He grips the girl’s hand, trying to figure out how he will convince her to jump, but she nods her head as if she knows what he’s thinking. They count together—one, two, three—and then jump. They sail through the air—Elsie going higher and higher on the swing, braids flapping and legs pumping, ready to fly away from him even then—and land in an ungainly pile on the hard, cold ground. As the train puffs back to life, he thinks he hears someone shouting, perhaps the men realizing at last that their prey is gone. But the train gathers speed and soon is out of sight beyond the bare-limbed trees, and it’s just him and the girl, standing in a frozen field in the middle of nowhere. He has no idea where they are or how to get back, but the air is crisp and fresh in his lungs, and there’s a warm little hand in his.
A cold little hand in his, Marian’s ugly sobbing staining the bedsheets, the doctors and nurses standing at a respectful distance. And all he can think is, It’s over. It’s all over. This is the end of everything.
The girl looks up at him and smiles, and he can’t help smiling back.