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 bluesky 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, procedures 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.
Bestselling author, musician, and screenwriter Ridley Pearson lives part-time in Hailey, Idaho. He will embark on a national tour this summer for his newest thriller, PARALLEL LIES. For more information, contact www.ridleypearson.com.
Published by arrangement with the Author and Writers House LLC. Excerpted from PARALLEL LIES by Ridley Pearson, published by Hyperion. Copyright 2001 Page One, Inc.