by Shannon Brady
[this is the second in the three part series–
read Final Stop from the beginning, here]

His daughters always said he worked too hard, asked him again and again when he would retire. He always had the same answer for them: “When I’m good and ready.”

He knows he never did anything better in his life than father two wonderful kids, and he always misses them something fierce when the rails take him away from them. It was better after they were married with their own homes, no longer waiting around in Dad’s cramped city apartment. Still…he never exactly got Christmases and birthdays off.

Eric’s hands — stiff and always slightly sore nowadays —rest protectively on the control stand, meticulously kept free of dust and scratches. Even after everything, he can’t resent the old train. The presence of the levers and switches inches from his fingers feel as much like home as…well, home. And, oh…

He lifts his gaze to the very top of the windshield. If his eyes were going-going, like his older daughter worries, he would have sadly hung up his cap already. But he can still see the subtle undulations of the yellowing grass in the plains, the leaves blowing away from the trees, how crystal perfect blue the sky is over the mountains and forests. Never looked better, the thought occurs to him.

It’s almost disappointing when he finally pulls into the last station, the little rusty-red structure that some of the younger boys laugh at and call a shack when they think Eric can’t hear. Let them laugh, he supposes. They’re spoiled these days, these kids, but they’ll learn as they get older, just like he did.

Hell, he was born in a shack in the middle of nowhere, and look how far he’s managed to come: over peaks and down valleys and through the most vicious blizzards and storms to see every inch of this country.


He hasn’t jumped since his first years driving the train, but he does let out a startled sort of cough from deep in his chest as he turns around. “Hrm…? Oh, excuse me, young lady. Can I help…ah.”

The politeness falls away as he gets the full picture of the woman in the doorway of the control car — red hair smartly tied back, blue eyes wide and alert, and brand new engineer’s uniform spotless from her cap to her shoes — and is replaced by genuine warmth. My, how times are changing, he thinks.

“I think I have an idea of what you’re here for, new kid.” He offers his hand to shake. “Eric Flange.”

“I know — everybody talks about you!” The woman has a firm handshake, the likes of which he hasn’t felt in a long time, and Eric smiles approvingly. “They told me I’d get to meet you when I took over this line, I didn’t quite believe it at first. No offense!”

“None taken. And your name?”

She snaps into a sharp salute, grinning in spite of herself. “Nea Wye, sir! It’s an honor to meet you.”

“Is it really? Little old me?”

“I heard you always did sell yourself short. From Joe back at headquarters, mostly. He said even after that crash, when you pulled all those people out of the fire, all you could say when the ambulance came was—”

Eric almost laughs. “It was my job, I said. And it was, all there was to it. How is Joe, anyway? He ever get promoted?”

“Retired now, actually. Traveling with his family, last I heard.”

“Ah.” The words put a weight in Eric’s heart, but he breathes slowly and carefully around it. It was always going to fall like this, wasn’t it? “I ought to get to that, shouldn’t I? I should have retired in ‘62.”

“That’s the age for it, according to the manual,” Nea says, in the same crisp tone. But she can’t quite hide the sorrow in her eyes that tells Eric she knows exactly what he meant. “You’ve done amazing, sir. Everyone says so. Now, though…may I?”

Eric takes one more deep breath, before stepping aside and gesturing welcomingly to the control stand. “You’ve read the manual. Good. But you’ve got to know that’s not enough as an engineer. Enough time behind these controls, you’ll develop instincts. When it counts, you’ve got to listen to them. Understand me?”

“Yes, sir. Thank you.” Nea steps up, and a shiver of excitement runs over her body when she lays hands on the controls. “My whole life, I’ve been waiting for this…!”

Eric lifts his head proudly. “It’ll be a good life. I promise you that. As for me, I’ve got to go see my daughters. But…would you allow me one last ride with the old girl?”

Nea smiles, patting the controls affectionately. “It’ll be my honor to drive you.”

Eric gives her one quick, encouraging squeeze to the shoulder — the kind he’d give his kids when they were young, running home from school with A’s on their test papers — before finally walking out of the control car to the passenger cars. The seats are a lot plusher than they used to be, and he has his pick of any of them from here to the caboose.

But he’s never been picky. He sits in the first row by the door, right at the window. It’s comfortable, but he’s only able to settle in when he feels the train growl and roar to life underneath him, same as always, and feel the rattling vibrations against his head leaning on the glass. He doesn’t focus on any particular thing, only on the colors of grass and sky and mountain all rushing together, impossibly beautiful.

Funny, he thinks, for the first time in a long time. I don’t think I remember that ambulance ride…

All at once, the train shoots into the tunnel through a cliff side, and everything goes pitch black.

The first she can, Nea turns to ask if Eric is finding everything alright. But his seat is as empty as the rest, and her shoulder is still cold.

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