Originally published in Microtext 4 from Medusa’s Laugh Press, June 2019
There was no way he could have seen the kid in time. Not with the way the tracks curved here, slithering out of the woods’ green oblivion. No, even if he’d been paying more attention, looking at the track instead of those funny videos on his phone, it would have been too late. A medium freight like this, three locomotives and forty-nine cars behind, slinging around the bend at a frankly reckless twenty miles an hour, would still grind on for almost a mile before the emergency brake lived up to the second half of its name. There was no way, even if he had applied said brake at the earliest possible moment, instead of when he glanced up from JUST TRY TO NOT LAUGH part 14 to find himself just over half a mile from the kid and closing, that the train could have stopped in time.
He really needed this to be true.
Cranking the emergency brake with one hand and tooting the horn with the other, he ticked the ‘did everything I could’ box by screaming “GET OFF THE FUCKING TRACKS!” at the windshield.
The kid did not get off the fucking tracks. He stood right where he was, dead center between the rails, about to be dead full stop because the train certainly couldn’t. Stop, that is.
The brake, which the engineer had never thrown in his life before, shrieked like it had just seen a mouse and couldn’t find a stool to stand on. Inertia flung the engineer forward, punching him in the chest with the dashboard. His phone went flying, taking with it all mirth and humor that had ever existed in the world, see ya later laughter, so long smiles.
Was the kid deaf? How else to explain his absolute indifference to a screeching, sparking industrial behemoth bearing down on him?
Only that wasn’t what needed explaining, the engineer realized as the train barreled into the final quarter mile of this kid’s life. More pressing was the look on the kid’s face. Like he’d watched one too many of those funny videos. The kid had JUST TRIED TO NOT LAUGH, and he’d failed, big time. He was laughing so hard he was crying, this kid.
The engineer reached up and gave the horn a few more toots, but as soon as he saw the kid’s face, he knew how this ended, knew there was not a single goddamned thing he could do about it. He just had to sit here and watch it happen.
Or not. He could close his eyes, he supposed.
But the kid on the tracks had his open, wide open. And in some strange way, the engineer felt like reciprocating was the only respectful thing to do, the least he could do.
All he could do.
In the moment before the kid vanished from view beneath the bottom edge of the windshield, he looked up and locked eyes with the engineer. JUST TRY TO NOT LAUGH, the eyes said. And then they were gone.
There were no dreadful thumps or bumps to commemorate the moment of impact. From inside the locomotive, the engineer didn’t feel a thing. He hoped the same was true for the kid.
It occurred to the engineer that if he simply hadn’t looked up, hadn’t taken his eyes off his phone at all, he would have plowed right over the kid and been none the wiser. Maybe assumed he hit a deer when he saw the blood. That happened, sometimes.
But then…what if those hadn’t been deer?
A mile or so later, the train stopped.