In the car that morning, while buckling her seat belt, she heard about the tragedy: a man in his early thirties was hit by a train in Ruston. A runner. He was killed instantly, of course. The radio announcer gave no other details. Bree tried to pull up the feed on her phone while driving, knowing damn well that she shouldn’t get distracted. Knowing, but not able to help herself when she stopped at a light on 12th. She was just so curious. How did it happen—was the runner suicidal? Was he playing chicken with the train? Was he high?
KIRO7 said the victim’s wife had been in the running group farther ahead, safely across the train tracks. Oh God, how horrible. If only the wife had turned around. The news put into perspective Bree’s own annoyance, her morning of forgetting the boys’ lunches on the kitchen counter, having to turn the Volvo back around after nine blocks.
No, don’t put a clothespin on your brother’s cheek, she scolded. Shit (spoken aloud by mistake). She covered her mouth in response to a stern look from her five-year-old.
Where’d you get a clothespin? She asked during a sloppy parallel park in the loading zone.
Stay, please, I’ll only be a minute.
Bree made it to the lobby doors before guilt washed over her. What if something happened? She turned on her heel, nodding to the doorman, and unbuckled her five- and three-year-olds.
Hurry, hurry. Just step over the coloring book. I said leave it!
They waited for the elevator, waited with twitching knees and fingers while old Mrs. Baker from the third floor exited with her walker. So painfully slow. Bree forced a smile, held the elevator doors to avoid collision with the walker.
In her stainless kitchen, Bree gave a last glance at the digital clock on the stove and scooped up the three-year-old, distracting him from the beeline he suddenly thought to make toward the LEGO set. 9:05. They’d be 10 to 15 minutes late to Trevor’s preschool at this point, 20 to kindergarten, a more serious crime. But if she swung by the elementary school first and backtracked all the way up Pearl, they’d all be late—including her. She’d insisted on a morning meeting with the mortgage officer, and now she’d be the one to scurry in, all disheveled and frantic.
There on the marble counter, next to Thomas the Train and Star Wars lunch boxes, was the folder she’d meant to bring to the bank with her. See, she muttered, look on the bright side. The forgotten lunches had saved her from further embarrassment at the meeting. She should consider this a teachable moment—time to take stock, in the same vein as when she read one of the inspiring quotes she kept plastered around the apartment (the ones that drove her husband crazy). Happiness is found when you stop comparing yourself to other people on the bathroom mirror. If it doesn’t challenge you, it won’t change you on the computer screen. And then, the less weighty (yet equally apt) sayings, such as, Nothing tastes as good as thin feels on the refrigerator door. Pay attention, she reminded herself. Bree grabbed the lunches, smoothed crumbs off her purple crenellated folder.
No, no, Trevor, keep your coat on.
But I’m hot.
We’ll be outside in a minute.
Then that crazy whine: No, no, no, and he wiggled out of one sleeve.
Can you see that mommy is starting to get irritated? Bree asked through her teeth, straining for calm. I don’t want to be upset with you. Let’s just try to make it downstairs, please. Jared, can you help me? Help your brother keep his coat on.
But I’m hot, too, Mommy.
Can I just get my LEGO man I made this morning? I want to show Ms. Schilling.
Bree plunked down in the hallway, facing the boys, legs straddled in her widest split, a sort of narrow V. Teachable moment. Please, please, help Mommy, boys. Can you see? We could have already been downstairs, back in the car, if you were listening. All of your protests slow us down. Keep your coats on. No LEGOs. No whining, please.
But I’m sooo hot. I’m going to melt like a popsicle, Jared said.
Bree hung her head, finally defeated by her eldest’s flair for the dramatic, by his clever use of metaphor. Defeated, too, by the serious pitch of Trevor’s whine.
Okay. Take your coats off. But here’s the deal, you can’t put them back on outside. If you’re cold, you’re cold. The car is right outside the door.
Okay, Mommy. That’s okay, Mommy. I won’t. Trevor won’t, come on Trevor. I’ll hold your coat.
My good little boy, Bree thought. Responsible even within his protests.
When the elevator landed in the lobby, though it couldn’t have been more than eight or ten minutes, Prakeesh the doorman scolded Bree: You know that’s really a loading zone, Mrs. Amalfi. You’re not supposed to stay parked there. Not supposed to leave the car, really. My fault, ma’am, I should not have let you. I had to send the café’s delivery truck around the block twice already.
Fine, Bree said under her breath, fine. I bet you don’t know what it’s like to try to herd two coatless, distracted kids down the street to a parking spot seven blocks away. Given the chance, she’d do it again, park in the loading zone right under Prakeesh’s nose, despite the delivery man.
Kids were re-buckled and figurines handed out, precious seconds wasted; she finally took a breath and thought about how all of her niggling irritations paled in comparison to those of the runner’s wife—that woman’s problems were serious. Her problems were real.
The few seconds Bree took to readjust seemed to aggravate the box truck driver, his hazards on while he waited for the load zone and he gave an insistent, syncopated honk. He held up traffic like the street was his personal driveway. Christ, how selfish, Bree thought, realizing that in some sense, it was she—no, her children—who were holding up traffic. It was their lunches, their toys, their complaints, their insistent lethargy.
Bree gave a curt wave to the driver and pulled out onto St. Helens Ave., wondering just how much of an asshole she’d become to blame her own children for holding up traffic. These sweet, rowdy, life-filled boys. Boys who demanded and yanked and yelled, until several times a day, she felt a stream of anger swell from her belly to her chest, constricting her throat. Many evenings she had to step outside on the balcony just so she wouldn’t throw a wooden spoon at one of their little screaming heads.
But then Trevor, sensitive to his mother’s needs, would notice and stop leaping at his brother. He’d stare at Bree through the sliding glass door with those lentil-like brown eyes and give the most timid smile. He’d hold his arms out, not to demand a lift, but as an offering, a conciliatory gesture worthy of a Fra Angelico cherub. And Bree would decompress, just like that. The anger drained and she’d come in from the frosty Tacoma night to the sweet, loving kisses of her youngest son.
By the time her husband made it home from the office, sometime after six each night, the scene would be of familial content. All three of them huddled as one. Bree would encourage Jared to read his Splat the Cat books, sounding out “DID” and “HOT” on the microsuede couch. Trevor tried to keep up, but then finally begged, Mommy, you read it.
Did the runner have any children, Bree wondered? When traffic slowed on 21st and Proctor, nine blocks from Trevor’s Montessori school, Bree used her touch ID and pulled up the runner’s story again on her phone. No children. Bree zoomed in, made the font bigger, ignored Jared’s repeated questions about the cranes in the harbor.
The runner, one of 20-odd athletes who went out that afternoon for a leisurely eight miles, had been waiting behind the lowered gate as a train passed. In the photo, he was wearing bright white, new-looking Avia sneakers— pre-accident, of course. He looked focused, serious, in the photo taken before a race, number 310 pinned to his chest, his eyes set on a distant goal. The article said he’d recently completed his 25th half-marathon, was a Half-Fanatic, part of the Tacoma Running Club. He’d done six full marathons in his lifetime and was training for his first Iron Man.
Each of the runners interviewed for the article called him funny or a great guy. Smart as hell. Only one person had seen it happen, had seen him look down the track, following the train with his gaze as he trotted in place. He had just said, to the group of three he left behind, I’m going to catch up with Cindy, we’ve got dinner tonight with some clients, and he sprinted ahead, only to be caught waiting behind the passing train.
When the caboose was in sight, the runner swiveled his head, checked down the track in the other direction, and unfathomably, ducked under the gate.
He literally never saw it coming, said the guy who watched it happen from a hundred yards back. The other two had dropped back, taking a break, fueling up with energy packets. This sole witness saw the runner duck under while a second train heading south, hidden from sight behind the first, northbound train, came speeding out and slammed full force into the runner’s left shoulder, then into his face, lifting and carrying his body as if he was a plant or a sack of grain. There was no sound but the smack, and then the grinding of brakes. No cry from the runner. Died in an instant. Only sections of his body were left—parts that were not sucked under the wheels and crushed—a mangled torso, miles down the track.
Good God, Bree said, her curse nearly drowned out by the irritated honks of cars behind her.
You mean Gosh, right Mom, not God. We’re not allowed to say God that way. Right?
Right, baby. Sorry.
What is it, Mom, why’d you say God?
Nothing, just somebody died.
We don’t know him.
Yeah, what happened, Trevor added.
They were almost to the school—at least the drop-off line would be clear. They were now—Bree looked at the clock on her phone—a full 18 minutes late to preschool. How had it gotten that late? Now they would be nearly half an hour late for kindergarten. Jared would need a note. She reached into the center console for a pen. There must be paper somewhere. Bree leaned back behind the passenger seat, fumbled around, and came up with a page from an Elmo coloring book.
She’d also have to call the mortgage broker, delay the meeting with her pair of young clients looking to buy their first home. Bree advocating for them with the bank was unorthodox, but she’d become fond of the Native American couple, felt some pride in paving their way into life off the reservation.
When Mary and Sherman Nez walked into the real estate office, not one agent jumped up to help. So Bree quickly rose and greeted them, even though it wasn’t her turn. She wanted to prove to her somewhat jaded colleagues that you don’t always have to sniff out the big money. Of course, everyone wanted to make a living, but what happened to all the good intentions in money lending and real estate? Helping this young couple had made Bree question her own values in a way she hadn’t since her days in Americorps. How far off track had she gone?
What happened, Mommy? Jared again. What happened?
His relentless volume. Four blocks away now. The light on 26th flashed yellow and Bree gunned it.
What happened, Mommy?
An accident. A train, she said.
What happened with the train?
She saw the school up ahead. She’d gained time, making it through the last light. Bree kept up her speed, shaving seconds off the clock. Those young Native Americans were counting on her.
When, Mommy, when? Jared persisted and she just looked down at her phone for the briefest of seconds. She had been looking, for what? The time? For more information on the runner’s death?
Mommy! Jared screamed, a sound like a train whistle, a high-pitched warning she’d never heard before from her son’s lips. And then she looked up, into traffic. Too late.