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He woke the next afternoon, drenched in sweat. His experience the previous evening had left him inexplicably exhausted - well, perhaps it wasn't inexplicable, considering he'd managed to sprint the entire length of the city back to his apartment. Still, though, he'd felt...spent. He could barely recall collapsing onto his bed, but he must have because here he was on top of the quilt that his mother had given him when he'd moved out on his own at 19.

He'd been dreaming again, the dreams more vivid and fierce than those in the past. This time, he could see the detail of the train bearing down on the woman and child; he could see the colors of the blanket that covered the boy, yellow and white checked. He could almost very nearly hear her deep, expectant breath inward as the locomotive raced toward her steady, relentless form.

He sat up on the edge of the bed, his clothing crumpled from having been slept in. He reflected to himself that he certainly hadn't made any efforts to dress nicely for his own demise, what with the condition of his jeans and t-shirt. He brushed at a grass stain on his left knee even though he knew that merely swiping at it would do no good. He supposed he ought to wash them, but then decided it wasn't worth it.

He was going back.

The intensity of the dream had led to a renewed sense of determination. All the way home, his feet slapping in a soothing rhythm on the pavement, he'd decided that the botched attempt had been some kind of sign. He'd felt it on his back, at the final moment as he looked the train dead in the face.

He'd felt the hand.

He wasn't a religious man. He had no quarrel with God and he was no atheist, but he certainly couldn't be called a man of faith. He was simply a man - and religion, or other supernatural or metaphysical beliefs held no weight on him.

Still, though. He'd felt it.

It had shoved him (quite roughly, he remembered) out of the way of the oncoming train, so close at the time that he could have reached out and touched the hot steel of it, had been able to see the shocked face of the engineer. Right as he'd thought the moment was about to arrive, he'd instead been tumbling off the tracks and into the brush.

So, he'd figured that was it - he'd given it a chance and nothing had come of it. Time to cut his losses and move on, right?

The dream had changed his mind.

He'd go back.

He spent the rest of the afternoon in the apartment that still sometimes smelled of her, even though he knew that was just an illusion. It had been many years since he'd last heard from her, even more since she'd been here. Still, sometimes he thought he could pick up the scent of her Marlboros and the the Love's Baby Soft that she sometimes wore to try to mask the smell from her mother.

He made coffee, but he didn't drink it.

He looked at the food in his fridge, but he didn't eat it.

He turned on the television, but he didn't watch it.

He lay down on the couch to nap, but instead he stared at the ceiling where countless bottle caps were arranged into a crooked daisy. Over time, some of them had fallen to the floor and he'd sometimes accidentally suck them up in the vacuum cleaner. The basic shape remained, though, the daisy's center growing darker over the years as the water damage had seeped in.

Outside, the neighbor children shrieked, but he didn't hear them.

He stared blankly upwards at the bottle cap daisy until a tinny alarm from his bedside clock announced the time. Before he rose, he wondered if the bottle caps could stay there forever, if they would come look at them and wonder about their impact on his psyche. He shook his head as he stood. They were just bottle caps, nothing more. He reached up and plucked one down. It had been from a decent beer, an expensive brand that they'd only buy on special occasions or when the paychecks had good overtime pay on them. He rolled it around his fingers for a bit before shoving it into his pocket.

Maybe it would bring him good luck tonight, he thought, as he shuffled to the bedroom to turn off the alarm.

It was an hour walk from his apartment to the train tracks. He'd stopped at a mini-mart to see if they had the expensive beer available (they didn't), so he was a little late when he finally arrived to the same place he'd stood the night before. He wondered if the same engineer would be in the locomotive tonight.

It was silent around him for a few minutes.

The whistle of the train in the distance caught his attention.

One foot in front of the other.

He measured his steps evenly as he grew closer to the tracks.

At the same time, the locomotive grew ever nearer.

The horn brayed. He could see that there was a new engineer tonight, but this new man made the same o-face as the last had.

He stepped in front of the engine and let out the breath he didn't know he'd been holding.

Like the woman in his dream, he was resolute.

* * * * *

As he came into town, he drew long and hard on the train whistle.

He'd only taken this shift because yesterday's engineer was so shaken up by what had happened that he'd refused to report for duty. Word had it that he was holed in some motel room across town, being fed whiskey by his fellow men.

He'd heard what had happened, had heard whispers that they thought he might've imagined it. He was under a lot of stress at home, with his wife leaving him and taking the kids. There was talk they'd send him out on a leave of absence to clear his head. After all, you couldn't do this job if you weren't somewhat right in the head.

He leaned over and spat into the tin can at his feet. The chewing tobacco made a satisfying "ting" noise as it hit. When he raised his head, he felt the color drain from his face.

It was then that he supposed that the ol' boy from last night hadn't been quite out of his mind after all. Here was the same man, quite possibly wearing the same damn clothes, standing in quite possibly the same damn place as before. It was hard to tell from this vantage point, but he was pretty sure the dude was smiling with his eyes closed.

Then he wasn't there anymore.

He was too busy bringing the train to a stop and making the appropriate calls that he didn't get a chance to see where the man had gone.

He had a feeling that they'd be feeding him whiskey tonight, too.

* * * * *

It was grass again. Pebbles, digging into his cheek.

A space between his shoulder blades hurt, as if someone had shoved him hard.

"Inconceivable," he whispered before he pushed himself up off the ground.

Once again, he ran.




Need more background on The Guy and the Train? This season, I'm going back to my roots as a writer and tackling the land of fiction. This season of LJ Idol, for me, is an exercise in that: In stretching my creative legs to build characters and moments and places off of a single flash of inspiration found in a tent in the middle of Oregon. If you'd like more context, check out my previous entries. Above all, though, enjoy the ride.
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