Authors: Ridley Pearson
For holding us together all these years. For leading the way with grace and creativity. For the neighborhood art fairs in the backyard. For all those things too big and too small to mention. Support is a tiny word when laid at your feet. You hold the world sometimes. And all of us with it. You are the best. The only. The Betsy.
The train charged forward in the shimmering afternoon sunlight, autumn’s vibrant colors forming a natural lane for the raised bed of chipped rock and the few hundred tons of steel and wood. The rails stretched out before the locomotive, light glinting off their polished surfaces, tricked by the eye into joining together a half mile in the distance, the illusion always moving forward at the speed of the train, as if those rails spread open just in time to carry her.
For the driver of that freight, it was another day in paradise. Alone with his thoughts, he and his brakeman, pulling lumber and fuel oil, cotton and cedar, sixteen shipping containers, and seven empty flatbeds. Paradise was that sound in your ears and that rumble up your legs. It was the blue sky meeting the silver swipe of tracks far off on the horizon. It was a peaceful job. The best work there was. It was lights and radios and doing something good for people—getting stuff from one place to another. The driver packed another pinch of chewing tobacco deep between his cheeks and gum, his mind partly distracted by a bum air conditioner in the bedroom of a mobile home still miles away, wondering where the hell he’d get the three hundred bucks needed to replace it. He could put it on the credit card, but that amounted to robbing Peter to pay Paul. Maybe some overtime. Maybe he’d put in for an extra run.
The sudden vibration was subtle enough that a passenger would not have felt it. A grinding, like bone rubbing on bone.
His first thought was that some brakes had failed, that a compressor had failed, that he had a lockup midtrain. His hand reached to slow the mighty beast. But before he initiated any braking—before he only compounded the problem—he checked a mirror and caught sight of the length of her as the train chugged through a long, graceful turn and down a grade that had her really clipping along. It was then his heart did its first little flutter, then he felt a heat in his lungs and a tension in his neck like someone had pulled on a cable. It wasn’t the brakes.
A car—number seven or eight—was dancing back there like she’d had too much to drink. Shaking her hips and wiggling her shoulders all at once, kind of swimming right there in the middle of all the others. Not the brakes, but an axle. Not something that could be resolved.
He knew the fate of that train before he touched a single control, before his physical motions caught up to the knowledge that fourteen years on the line brought to such a situation.
In stunned amazement, he watched that car do her dance. What had looked graceful at first, appeared suddenly violent, no longer a dance but now a seizure as the front and the back of that car alternately jumped left to right and right to left, and its boxlike shape disintegrated to something awkwardly bent and awful. It leaned too far, and as it did, the next car began that same cruel jig.
He pulled back the throttle and applied the brakes but knew it was an exercise in futility. The locomotive now roiled with a tremor that shook dials to where he couldn’t read them. His teeth rattled in his head as he reached for the radio. “Mayday!” he shouted, having no idea why. There were codes to use, procedure to follow, but only that one word exploded from his mouth.
The cars rolled now, one after another, first toward the back then forward toward the locomotive, the whole thing
dragging and screaming, the beauty of its frictionless motion destroyed. The cars tilted right and fell, swiping the trees like the tail of a dragon, splintering and knocking them down like toothpicks, the sky littered with autumn colors. And then a ripple began as that tail lifted briefly toward the sky. The cars, one coupled to the next, floated above the tracks and then fell, like someone shaking a kink out of a lawn hose.
Going for the door handle, he let go of the throttle, the “dead man’s switch” taking over and cutting engine power. He lost his footing and fell to the floor of the cab, his brain numb and in shock. He didn’t know whether to jump or ride it out.
He would later tell investigators that the noise was like nothing he’d ever heard, like nothing that could be described. Part scream. Part explosion. A deafening, immobilizing dissonance, while the smell of steel sparking on steel rose in his nostrils and sickened his stomach to where he sat puking on the oily cab floor, crying out as loudly as he could in an effort to blot out that sound.
He felt all ten tons of the engine car tip heavily right, waver there, precariously balanced up on the one rail, and then plunge to the earth, the whole string of freights buckling and bending and dying behind him in a massive pileup.
He saw a flatbed fly overhead, only the blue sky behind it. This, his last conscious vision, incongruous and unfathomable. For forty long seconds the cars collided, tumbled, shrieked, and flew as they ripped their way through soil and forest, carried by momentum until an ungainly silence settled over the desecrated track, and the orange, red, and silver leaves fell out of a disturbed sky as if laying a blanket over the face of a corpse.
Darkness descends quickly in December. In the flaming blue light of a camp stove, a man’s breath fogged the chattering boxcar as he struggled to warm a can of Hormel chili, the aroma mixing with the smell of oil and rust. The faint vapor of his breath sank toward the planking and then dissipated.
Umberto Alvarez thumped his fist onto the floorboards, the feeling in his fingers lost to the cold, and then cupped both hands around the small stove, wishing for more heat. The train rumbled. The can danced atop the stove. Alvarez reached out and steadied it, burning himself.
Be careful what you wish for,
The train’s whistle blew and he checked his watch. Nearly ten o’clock. The last significant slowing of the freight train had occurred ten minutes earlier, in Terre Haute. Alvarez had taken careful note of this, for at that speed, a person could get on or off the moving train—important to know for any rider. His reconnaissance almost completed, this trip, Indianapolis to St. Louis, would be his last ride for a while.
Behind him in the boxcar, Whirlpool dishwashers were stacked three high, their cardboard boxes proclaiming
as the rattle of steel-on-steel shook his teeth.
Alvarez’s fatigue-ridden eyes peered out from beneath a navy blue knit cap that he had pulled down to try to keep warm. Still, unruly black hair escaped the cap in oily clumps.
A brown turtleneck was pulled up over his unshaven chin to keep out the cold. It protruded from beneath a rat-holed sweatshirt. Over that, a faded fleece vest that had once been turquoise.
The stacked dishwashers occupied half the boxcar, secured by tattered webbing straps held together by cast-iron buckle clasps. The rhythm of the wheels on rail—two loud bumps followed by whining steel, followed again by the two bumps—contributed to Alvarez’s pounding headache, a sound that would remain with him for days, on or off the lines, a sound that lived in any rider’s bones:
Pale blue light from the fire ring limited his vision. He could barely see to either end of the forty-foot boxcar. There was spray paint graffiti there, if he remembered right, or maybe that had been another car, another day, another line. It all blended together—time, weather, hunger, exhaustion. He’d lost track.
The train could move him physically from one destination to another, but it couldn’t change the way he felt. The weary darkness that surrounded him had little to do with the dim flicker of the stove. It lived inside him now. His grief was suffocating him.
Minutes earlier the open cracks at the edges of the boxcar’s huge sliding door had flickered light from a small town. The train’s driver sounded the locomotive’s horn on approach. Through the car’s rough slats, street lamps cast shifting ladders of light throughout, reminding Alvarez uncomfortably of prison bars.
The train had clattered through the crossing, the warning bells ringing and sliding down the musical scale, driving Alvarez further into depression. Any such crossing was an agonizing reminder of his past. The minivan carrying his wife and kids had been recovered nearly a quarter mile from a
similar crossing, flipped onto its side and shaped like a barbell—flat in the center, bulging at either end.
He felt only a sharp, unforgiving pain where he should have felt his heart. Nearly two and a half years had passed, but still he couldn’t adjust to life without them. Friends had comforted him, saying he would move on, but they were wrong. He’d lost everything and now he’d given up everything. To hell with sleep. To hell with his so-called life. He’d turned himself over to the grief, succumbed to it. He had purpose, and that purpose owned him: Payment for atrocities against him and his family would be made in full. If not, he would die trying.
For the past eighteen months the media had reported a string of derailments: a freight train in Alabama; another in Kansas; still others west of the Rockies. Drivers were blamed. Weather conditions. Equipment failures. As many lies as there were train cars torn from the tracks. He had not begun with any grand plan, but somehow one had evolved. He had not awakened one morning to think of himself as a terrorist, although the description now fit. He had a meeting with a bomb maker scheduled for the next day. He had never followed a script, and yet he now found himself with a clear mission: nothing short of destroying the huge Northern Union Railroad would do. David versus Goliath: he’d assumed the role effortlessly.
While one hand stirred the chili with a red plastic stir stick, a shadow drew his attention. Shifting shadows were routine in a boxcar; it was the shadows that did not move that attracted one’s attention. But this shadow was caused by something—someone—on the
of the boxcar; it—he—moved slowly, boldly negotiating on the outside of a moving freight. Alvarez alerted himself to trouble—some drunken or crazed rider, no doubt, catching a whiff of the chili. It was no easy feat, what this man was doing—inching along the boxcar’s exterior; it implied someone strong, or hungry
enough to risk life and limb for a can of chili. Alvarez rose to block the door, but too late. The heavy door slid open—a one-handed move!—another near impossible feat.
Alvarez stepped back. The faceless visitor, silhouetted in the dark opening, stood tall and broad, a big son of a bitch, with a football player’s neck. This man reached for his belt and a flashlight came on, blinding Alvarez, who felt another wave of dread: maybe not a rider but a security guard, or even a cop. The feds had cracked down on riders since one recently had been arrested for butchering people in seven different states.
one of the headlines had read.
The Railroad Killer,
on the TV news.