SJ boards the California Zephyr at 7:03 PM in Denver. It’s her first time aboard the train, and it overwhelms her. She’s never experienced anything like climbing onto the second floor of a giant, movable building and being welcomed by an impossibly long hallway of large, royal-blue seats. She stows her suitcase overhead and sits down. Her hands explore the sides and underbelly of her seat, and she discovers a button on the armrest. She reclines. This plush and deeply dyed upholstery, engulfing her in blue, is the last thing she expected to settle into on this journey home. Home—the word has always felt wrong, but now, with the death of her father, it feels like an offering.
A whistle sounds and, moments later, the train rumbles out of Union Station to begin the slow march toward Chicago. SJ watches the industrial sectors of the city pass by, the view out the panoramic window like a motion picture projecting a distant world. She feels like she’s beginning a voyage on a zeppelin or the Titanic: something big and iron, defiant of physics and fate.
If there’s one thing about Wayne, it’s that he’s always prepared. He and Brooke had boarded the train in McCook, Nebraska, at 11:58 PM, and now he and Brooke’s car seat sit comfortably side by side, ready for the overnight journey to Chicago. Brooke is cradled in his arm, a soft, solid, hairy nook that any baby would be happy to snuggle up in—except this kid is screaming. She must be unnerved by the motion and sounds of the train, and all of Wayne’s rocking and cooing and peek-a-booing have had no effect. He refuses to be fazed and installs seafoam green earplugs in his ear canals. He can still hear the wailing, but the earplugs take the edge off, although they do nothing to dampen his thoughts. A small part of him knows—can’t help but know—that the source of the infant’s distress is him, her biological father and suddenly sole guardian.
He snatches the magazine out of the seat-back pocket and reclines with Brooke secure in his arm, forcing his attention on beautiful, glossy photographs of Montana. He’s always wanted to go to Montana and see the big sky and the bigger mountains and maybe hunt elk. His uncle and cousins used to go every year, but now that he’s interested, they’ve stopped. Money and time and other excuses. That’s okay enough by Wayne, who really has no idea what elk hunting entails anyway.
Stretched out across the double seat, SJ stares out the window into the opaque nighttime of the endless Nebraska plains. One of the reasons she had settled in Denver when she left Chicago six years ago was because of its place at the seam of the plains and the mountains. It felt so full of possibility, having such different heights on either side. Those possibilities expanded the first time she carpooled with new maybe-friends from her coworking space to a ski resort: the twisting, gut-tossing climb up into the mountains and the feeling of sitting snugly in snow—sweet, soft snow—while she looked out onto an infinity of white peaks.
It must be after midnight by now, and sleep finally starts to creep ever so slowly into her grasp, when the train pauses. A group of men in suspenders and old-fashioned hats, with thin beards and bright eyes, emerges at the top of the stairs in the middle of the carriage. They look around and proceed single-file down the aisle, through the door leading to the next car up. A handful of single passengers follow, with an Amtrak staff member on their heels instructing them not to take any open doubles. One of them, a boy, maybe in his twenties, stops by SJ. He clears his throat and reaches for her bag in the aisle seat.
“Excuse me,” she says, yanking out her earbuds.
“I need to sit here,” he says.
She grabs her bag and sweater, clutching them on her lap as her eyes dart around the train. She isn’t the only person with an empty seat next to her. There’s the sneezing woman who has accumulated a pile of used tissues in the adjacent seat, and the large man in hunter’s camo and a Duck Dynasty cap across the aisle. The fleeting images of deer bodies tucked amidst the foliage on his shirt do nothing to make SJ feel calm and settled.
“Really?” she says. She’s vaguely aware she’s not being polite, but she’s running on two hours of sleep and the last thing she needs is a shared seat. The guy, however, seems happy to match her rudeness, and doesn’t move.
Fucking men, she thinks, and stuffs her bag under the footrest. At least these seats have enough legroom to accommodate both her bag and her unusually long legs, which she can straighten all the way before they reach the shadows under the seat in front. When she looks up, she sees that her new companion has unpacked a bulky laptop with headphones to match, and is already in the pixelated midst of a first-person shooter game, eyes locked to the glowing screen. Her memories have fled, along with any hope for sleep.
There’s some commotion a few rows ahead of Wayne. He peers around the seat in front of him. The conductor has stopped in the aisle. Wayne watches the man shrug and walk away, disappearing at the end of the train car, and turns back to the magazine. He is imagining existence in a snow-covered log cabin along the Canadian border, complete with hot tub, elk, and fine company, when he feels a presence to his left. He looks up. A hefty woman towers over him, lips pursed, hands on hips. Wayne’s seen that look before.
He turns back to the open pages in his lap. Suddenly, the earplug is yanked from his left ear.
“Are you the father of this child?”
He cocks his head back and looks at the seats around him, as if for other contenders.
“Apparently so,” he says.
“Where is the mother? I am very concerned—”
“Lady, you just pulled my earplug out of my ear. Who do you think you are?”
“I am very concerned about the well-being of this child, not to mention the fact that you are being completely inconsiderate of the other people on this train.”
“I’m not doing anything to the people on this train.”
“This baby has been crying its eyes out for over an hour now.”
“What the hell, lady! Haven’t you ever been around a baby before? Babies cry.”
“Not like this they don’t. Frankly, I’m concerned about your ability to care for this child.”
“Are you threatening me?”
“There is something clearly wrong with this baby. When was the last time you fed him?”
“Her. That’s none of your business.”
From a couple rows ahead, a voice chimes in, “They already told you, you can’t do nothing about that baby.”
Now it’s Wayne’s turn to raise his eyebrows.
“Well, goodbye now,” he says.
Someone’s watch beeps at 2 AM. SJ has exhausted her playlists and flipped through every shining page of The National, Amtrak’s magazine, twice. She tries, reclining as far back as possible, legs stretched out, arms crossed on her chest, hoodie draped over her face. The black fabric blocks out the light, but amplifies the sound. All of the people and their sounds—she hears every single cough and whisper, and the one sound she can’t shake is not made by humans. She’d call it white noise, but it doesn’t exactly fade into nothingness, and besides, it’s harder than that, more mechanical but more alive, not perfectly repetitive enough to drown itself out. Iron noise, that’s what it is. The sound of the train car swaying side to side just enough to make you feel unsure of standing up. The wheels, or whatever they’re called, grinding and pumping against the rails. Locomotive—isn’t that what they called this thing back in the day? It makes sense. That word sounds like what she’s hearing, sped up and on off-beat repeat. Locomotivelocomotivelo-comotive.
She’d hoped she’d be asleep by now. The rocking of the train, her mom said, would knock her out. One big, diesel-powered cradle, that’s what this is supposed to be. That, plus the last-minute nature of this trip, making flight prices astronomically high, is the reason she decided to take the train. She had let herself be convinced that the “calm, stress-free, and affordable” nature of Amtrak would be a welcome sedative after the suddenness of her parents’ car crash and the soulless business of death that had begun with her father’s flat-lining in the hospital. The past week had been a cloud of phone calls and emptiness and talk of finances, and the only idea that felt solid was the realization that she had to move back to Chicago. The doctor said that her mother wouldn’t be able to walk again and would need care for the rest of her life, care she couldn’t afford without SJ stepping in to help.
To make it back for the funeral, she’d had to act fast. She got a storage unit and ended her lease. She spent her last night in Denver on her feet, boxing, taping, sweeping, cleaning, wiping the fridge, breaking bottles while taking them out of the fridge, mopping up sour liquids from the floor, throwing miscellaneous crap into garbage bags. Her girlfriend—no, her ex-girlfriend—of course, didn’t help. She thought SJ was making a big mistake, said she would be there for her grieving but that she wasn’t going to watch SJ throw her life away to return to a place she thought she’d escaped for good. “Call me when you come back to Colorado,” she’d said. “Five thousand dollars in therapy bills, and you’re still an asshole,” SJ had said.
She tugs the hoodie off her head and takes in the train. Six reading lights on, a kid behind her listening to music with heavy bass, and her seat partner, who hasn’t moved once. She’s grown, if not comfortable, at least accepting of his presence in the darkness of the hoodie, but now, de-shrouded, she’s increasingly on edge. Sure, he’s not muttering, glancing her way, or doing anything to take up space out of his gamer bubble, but that bubble is big. The blue light, those cramped wavelengths, plus the tension in his sinews and the aggression in his fingers pounding the keyboard—it’s too much to take. The noise—the tip tip tip BANG of the spacebar tip tip tip THUMP of the wrist connecting with hardware tip tip tap clink clunk tip tip clap—cacophonizes with the locomotiveloco-motivelocomotive of the train and suffocates her. She’s shivering, but her face and insides are boiling. On the verge of screaming, she forces a deep breath, pokes the boy, and before he can pause his game, climbs over him into the aisle, knocking his laptop off the tray table. Maybe by the time she gets back, he’ll have realized another seat would be more comfortable, and she’ll finally be able to sleep.
It takes Wayne a while to calm down after the encounter. When he can finally hear the shaking of the train and the squalls of the baby over all the things he wants to say to that woman, he realizes she still has his left earplug. He looks down at Brooke, still snug in the crook of his right arm. Her wide, gaping hole of a mouth contrasts oddly with her plump cheeks and fleshy being. He hugs her closer and scrunches his neck until his lips meet her forehead, his body still learning the angles and lengths at which to show his child affection. He lays her in the car seat next to him. Pulling the blanket over her, he tucks it around her body until she looks like the chubbiest, loudest, cutest caterpillar poking out of a pink cocoon. He stands, grabs his duffel from the overhead bin, and rummages around for the bulk pack of earplugs buried somewhere inside. When the replacement is snug in his ear canal and the peace has been restored, he looks down to consider the baby.
Not that that woman was right or anything—he does have the ability to care for this child, he thinks, he hopes—but maybe the kid is hungry. He’d already fed her dinner, and no one had told him whether infants needed midnight snacks. He doesn’t remember her crying at night since he took her from the hospital, but it’s possible Madison had taken care of her without telling him. He’d felt too insecure to ask for tips from Madison, who was Jo-ann’s roommate up until Jo-ann died, what, now five days ago? It’s not like Wayne has had much time to read up on parenting books. Jo-ann had called him out of the blue to let him know she was pregnant and that his baby was due in a matter of days. Apparently she felt it wasn’t right to bring a child into this world without the father knowing, although Wayne suspects her last-minute motivation was rooted in financial concerns rather than any sense of moral duty. Or fuck, maybe she knew she was going to kick it. Don’t they say moms just know shit like that? He got back to Nebraska as soon as he could, just before Jo-ann went into labor, fully intending to meet his firstborn, set up child support and a visiting schedule, and then head straight back to Chicago before he lost his job from too much time off. Then Brooke was born, and Jo-ann hemorrhaged. Now Wayne is taking Brooke back to Chicago, where his girlfriend has no idea about what—or who—is with him, and where he’ll have to figure out something to say to his boss to buy time to learn to be a father. The construction industry isn’t exactly full of single parents of newborns, and contract deadlines wait for no man.
Wayne picks up the bottle nestled at the child’s feet and shakes it, hoping to hear the viscous formula swish around inside. Empty. No problem, he thinks, and returns to rummaging inside the duffel, in search of the extra bottles and formula he packed before leaving. Soon his seat is piled high with dirty t-shirts and boxers, a back issue of Sports Illustrated, an emergency pack of cigarettes, a bib that leaves sticky residue on his fingers, a toilet paper roll, some loose diapers, and all the baby’s paperwork—her birth certificate, hospital records, and the new parent pamphlets the nurse had handed him, shaking her head. Everything is in the seat and the bag is empty, and there are no bottles to be seen. Damn—he must have left them in the kitchen when he was hurrying that day. Anybody could forget something he reminded himself, it doesn’t mean anything.
He lifts the bag and shakes it, one last, futile attempt, and a white pacifier falls out onto the floor. He picks it up and rubs any train dirt off on his shirt. Better than nothing. He pops it into the baby’s mouth, which is still a circular vacuum and screaming something terrible.
The silence that follows is sudden, sweet, and short-lived. Brooke spits out the pacifier in under five seconds. He picks it up and places it next to her in the car seat, just in case the little tyke wants it later.
When SJ opens her eyes, she tries to place where she is. She’s groggy, and the four walls around her feel way too close. She remembers the dark of the cabin, the staircase into the guts of the train, the rattling chamber of luggage and toilets. Ah, the tiny closet that is the bathroom. She’d found it surprisingly clean and blissfully silent, and after washing her hands with hand soap that smelled of almonds—almonds, like the marzipan her mom sent every Christmas behind her father’s back—she had figured, why not sit back down and close her eyes for a bit.
Now, as she stands up from the closed toilet lid, she reaches for the door in front of her and pushes. It doesn’t budge. Why won’t it open? Her foggy mind wakes, explodes into panic, all almond-scented serenity lost. What if she was locked in the bathroom compartment, forever shaken and splashed by the contents of the toilet bowl? Would they ever find her? Would she be stuck there long after the train arrived in Chicago, speeding toward wherever it is trains go at the end of their journey? Stuck in an all-metal casket. And who knows if that is yet to be her fate? She starts banging on the door. Her shouts for help are almost at a high-pitched scream when she hears a knock on the door and a voice saying something about a lock and a handle. She looks down at the door. There’s a lever that hadn’t been there before. She pushes it to the left with all her might and throws herself forward.
“Stop,” says the voice. “Pull.”
She steps back and grabs the handle and pulls. Freedom! She flings herself through the doorway, straight into a body. When she regains her balance, she finds herself confronted with dark eyes and facial hair and the pure, virtuous concern of a complete stranger. She stammers an apology, curses the toilet, and bolts.
She doesn’t give a second thought to the person who saved her, even after she finds an empty booth in the yellow light of the lounge car’s lower level, still trembling from the nightmare of her averted destiny. Her mind is consumed instead with how to make this booth transform into a luxury divan, a vinyl-turned-velvet vessel of sweet, sweet slumber. She tries curling her 5’11” body into a fetal position, her legs fighting to stay perched on the seat’s ledge. She tries sitting up and leaning against the window with her feet on the opposite seat, knees bumping against the table. She tries getting up on the table itself, but while she lies there, she can’t help but feel like she’s on an operating table waiting for Dr. Jekyll. She wonders if this is how her father felt, laid out in the hospital room through rounds of surgery after the car crash—were his roots showing? He hadn’t been as diligent about his hair dye the last time SJ’s mom had sent a picture, but he still wore that flattop haircut with such perfectly straight edges it made an adult SJ wonder. Her father had believed in the Lord and the Bible, and in his duty to enforce the Word in his family and maybe himself with a firm hand and a thick belt, but neither the Heavenly Father nor this earthly one made in His image could stop a drunk driver from taking to the road that night. SJ is still angry at her parents for the ways they chose to show or not to show love, but mostly, right now, she feels nauseous and sad, lying on the table, imagining the lonely meaninglessness of her father’s condition in those last hours. The lonely meaninglessness of her mother’s marriage and of her childhood.
She slides off the table back into the seat, makes a pillow with her arms, and rests her head into their darkness. She is on her way to Chicago to find meaning, to help her mother have the freedom she could never have in real life—or as much freedom as a partly paralyzed older woman with an out daughter she’s quietly embarrassed by could have. In other words, to make those first shitty seventeen years of her life mean something. But for now, the only meaning she wants in her life is sleep.
Wayne figures there has to be baby food somewhere on this train, and now he’s on a mission. He stuffs his belongings back into the duffel and grabs the car seat with Brooke inside. That woman probably thinks he’d leave Brooke alone, as if he is that clueless. Maybe he was dumb enough to forget some extra bottles, but that was just a one-time mistake. Right?
He starts walking down the aisle toward the next train car, carrying Brooke in the car seat in front of him. No other babies in sight. Two cars later, and he’s in the lounge car. He can see the half-full moon through the panorama windows that curve up and into the ceiling. An older couple is sitting in a couch-style chair reading, and they look friendly enough. Wayne places his hand on the woman’s shoulder and she looks up to glare at him.
“Excuse me, ma’am, I—”
“One moment,” she cuts him off. She reaches up to fiddle with her hearing aid. Wayne can tell she’s turned it on when she gives a startled look at the crying infant next to him. She shakes her head, looks at Wayne, and asks him what he wants.
“I’m afraid I forgot the bottles for the—my baby girl here, and I’m hoping to find something on this train to hold her off until we get to Chicago. Do you have any idea where I should start?”
“You could try the cafe downstairs. I know they have milk, and they could warm it up for you in the microwave. It’s not open at this time of night, though.”
Wayne thanks her and decides to head downstairs to try his luck. He considers himself a lucky person, but it seems like he can’t count on that these days. He hopes whatever ounce of good fortune he has left will get him through this night and tomorrow with his relationship with Heather still intact. They’re supposed to move in together at the end of August, but he still hasn’t figured out how to tell her about this, and all he can do is hope that when Heather sees the baby, she’ll fall in love with her too.
He descends the tight staircase to the lower level of the lounge car, looking forward to getting himself a treat to de-stress—if the cafe turns out to be open. When he reaches the bottom, he sees that the cafe is indeed closed behind a garage-style rolling door, and that the room is empty except for a girl sleeping at one of the booths. She looks like she could be in her early twenties, with dark hair tied in a ponytail and her head resting on folded arms. Wayne figures he may as well set up camp here so that he can catch any of the train staff if they wander down for a late-night snack. He positions the car seat in an empty booth and sits, pulling a deck of cards from his jacket pocket. Dealing out a game of solitaire, he can’t help but notice the girl is drooling on her sleeve.
The train is gathering speed, topping one hundred fifty miles per hour, as it approaches Chicago. The squeaky clean suburbs roll past as the tunnel and rails sparkle in front of the train. The city rises in front of SJ, floats on clouds a mile above the earth. The skyscrapers pierce the stratosphere: glass and metal disappear into ozone. As the train charges closer—locolocolocolocomotivelocomotive—she sees a house at the edge of the aerial city, dark, with vines sprouting out in every direction, tendrils that she knows are flexing their muscles, eager to coil around her flesh and squeeze.
Just a few miles away now, the train curves towards the house, steers upward, and starts to lift, leaping towards the lowest vine that reaches down like a noose. SJ feels the heaviness of the train, the gravity calling to steel and iron, the tiredness of the machine trying to hook itself onto this growth from the heavens. She feels the struggle and then physics winning, feels the pull, the train car and her body slowing their climb, and then everything falls backward and downward. Her body floats mid-air, suitcases hover by her head, and suddenly the train car is an SUV diving towards earth, headlights shooting an unearthly light onto the ground below, and someone is screaming, her father is screaming, and SJ tries to cover her ears and hold her breath—
SJ becomes aware of her arms pressing against her head, a sore, boney nest that does nothing to insulate her from the waahhh penetrating the lounge car. After what must be minutes arguing with her body, she finally convinces her head to lift and her eyes to crack open just a sliver. The light from the fluorescent cylinders overhead is still yellow, the oily odor of pepperoni pizza still lingers in the air, the train car still jerks side to side, the booths are still faux leather and blue—but now, one of them is occupied. She rubs her eyes, trying to rub away the screaming that she now realizes did not come from her dream.
A man sits in one of the booths, and across from him, in a light-gray car seat propped between the table and seat back, lies the ear-splitting offender. Cards are spread out on their table in a solitaire formation, but the man’s head is leaning against the wall. He’s apparently asleep, unfazed by the bawling baby before him. She looks out the window: the world beyond is pitch black. No mountains, no plains. The darkness mixes with the murky remnants of her dream and magnifies SJ’s sense of drowning.
At last, she calls out to the man, Do you mind? Can’t you calm it down or something? She feels the words in her mouth and hopes they reach his ears. No movement. Nothing but screaming. Her hands help her body to stand and she finds herself standing over the child. It is small and smooth and white with red splotchy cheeks. Even babies look a mess when crying.
You must not be able to sleep either, SJ thinks, and look at this man, this fucking man, in ignorant, slumberous bliss while you are alone. So that you are alone.
SJ reaches down and slides her hands underneath the infant to pick it up, but stops when she realizes she’s never held a child before. She can’t leave it in this car seat though, alone and wailing. The child isn’t strapped in, but that doesn’t stop SJ from recalling the uselessness of seatbelts, and she scoops the baby up and holds it to her chest. “Let’s go upstairs and look for the stars.”
Nearing the second level of the train car, thinking these narrow, ladder-like steps were not made for people with their hands full, she feels something grab her shirt, and she turns and sees the man. He’s yelling at her. She panics, and pulls harder, upward, forward. He pulls harder, downward, backward. He reaches for her arm, and now he’s got it, and now she doesn’t have—now the baby is—
The silence is the worst thing about hospitals. Not that there’s no noise, but there’s no noise meant for you. You can’t tell your brain that, though, and it jumps at the slightest sound, won’t stop jumping. The only thing you can identify with is the clock, its too-audible ticking, a monotonous repetition that is meaningless to the clock but that the clock is powerless to stop. The stillness of the room, the solidity of the walls, the air striving to be sterile—this place is unknowable to the train, which has long carried on, now scurrying through the Iowan hills, blowing its horn, rattling the rusty tracks, nearing Illinois and the string of suburban towns littering the plains to Chicago.
Wayne is afraid of any news, and of the lack of news. He is afraid of speaking to Heather, and of not speaking to Heather. He is afraid of the explanation he’ll have to give for his trip to Nebraska and of the as-yet-unknown outcome of that trip. He is afraid of what he will do if—when—he meets the girl who caused this, and he is afraid of the size and shape of the presence she will have in his life long after this day is done. He is afraid of legalities and of cops, and he’s never met an undertaker, but he bets they’re terrifying too. He has always been afraid of baby carriages but has never until now been afraid of baby-sized caskets, and he is unprepared for the prospect of being trapped either in fatherhood or in the loss of fatherhood. All of his friends are either six feet under the earth or buried beneath shitty minimum wage jobs—just like he was used to before he met Heather. He thought he was getting things together, that he finally had a grasp on his life—but nothing prepared him for this: the waiting room of the Clarke County ER, painted light-salmon with RNs in various pastel scrubs, with green carpet floors and green carpet chairs and a basic Home Depot clock and a motivational poster and a wooden cross with a 3D silhouette of a man and a receptionist who hasn’t looked at him since they took Brooke through the white double doors and she told him to take a seat. It was just an impact and a tumble, not even that many stairs, and he knows she was still breathing; how could it take this long? The clock has ticked a thousand ticks by now, passed a thousand judgments on his right to be a parent, to procreate, to care for a child he never intended to make, and he doesn’t know if that clock is right or if he can be a great father—or if not a great one, at least a good one, a passable one, a present one—but now he knows he wants to be one.
The hospital smells like a combination of cleaner and paper and carpet and nothing. The receptionist is typing, and the medical staff swish in and out of those white doors.
Those white doors open. “Wayne Freeman,” they call him, the father, they call him.
Shelby Switzer is a writer and civic technologist currently based in Baltimore, but often found on trains. They have participated in the Lighthouse LitFest Advanced Fiction Workshop and OneStory Summer Conference, and their work has appeared in the New Mexico Poetry Review and various tech-related publications. "Zephyr" is their first published piece of fiction.