Ready, Set, Go, a short story by R.C. Morgan at Spillwords.com
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Ready, Set, Go

Ready, Set, Go

written by: R.C. Morgan

 

A puff of smoke, a sharp trill from the whistle, and the train pulled out of Whitworth Station. Long plumes of black smoke wrapped around the carriages like a fluffy scarf.

Click clack went the wheels. Huff puff went the red engine working hard to pull the gleaming black carriages up the steep slope.

In the locomotive cabin, his face slick with sweat, a man shoveled coal from the tender to the firebox.

In the middle carriages, passengers sat on leathery bench seats. In the corridors, screaming children chased each other, filling the space with excited laughter.

From the caboose, the guard watched. His bright blue uniform sported golden buttons down the front; a black peaked hat sat firmly on his thick crop of red hair.

Puff, puff.

Click, clack.

The train continued to climb. It wound through narrow mountain passes coated in snow.

Higher and higher.

Slower and slower.

The engine struggled upwards in the thin air of the high mountain pass.

At the summit, it paused.

Windows were flung open as passengers leant out to admire panoramic views.

Hoot, hoot from the whistle.

Rattle, rattle from the wheels as the train crossed the high plateau before slowly beginning the long descent.

The procession of black and red wound through narrow cuttings, carefully negotiating tight bends, picking up speed as the descent became steeper. It began to race across slender bridges. Faster and faster until the wheels lost grip and the train left the tracks. With an ear-splitting scream of metal hitting rock, it crashed into the side of a mountain. Carriages tumbled over and over before splashing into the river below.

Passengers lay where they’d been tossed, motionless beside the torn-up tracks.

The guard, his bright blue uniform torn, lay unmoving. In one clenched hand, a gold button.

The engine lay on its back with its wheels spinning in the air, wreathed in smoke and steam surrounded by broken passengers.

***

A knock on the door and the room was filled with light.

Chloe Tyler watched her mother studying the room, analysing the chaos. The toy box was on its side, disembowelled. Its contents were scattered over the polished wooden floorboards, in the middle lay the red engine.

“Chloe, your appointment is in an hour and you’re not ready! You’re nearly thirteen, you ought to be more responsible.” Disappointment dripped from every syllable. Her mother was never happy with anything. She imagined her lying broken on the train tracks that sour expression neutralised.

Chloe put the toys back in the box, smirking at the destruction. Her grandmother had loudly disapproved of such a boyish toy for a girl. Girls had frilly dresses and dolls, play kitchens and teddy bears dressed in pink. They were not given train sets. Chloe sat on the floor, holding the red engine between long slender fingers, tracing the name Whitworth Express on the tender.

It was a birthday present from her father the year she turned twelve. An expensive, imported set made for the European market where children understood snow and mountains. Chloe could only imagine what snow felt like. In winter there were heavy white frosts that made her nose and fingers stiff and cold. She’d never seen a mountain. The country surrounding Whitworth was flat, covered with tatty bushes and sparse trees. There were no pretty hanging baskets filled with red flowers, or girls and boys in strange costumes. Her imagination took her into the pictures covering the box. It was an alien environment without gum trees. Her father’s car had hit a gum tree.

She heard her mother bustling in the hallway and methodically Chloe returned the carriages to the line. The red engine at the front was ready for its next journey.

After Laura delivered her daughter to the office overlooking the river, she would leave. The psychiatrist would politely offer a glass of water, or a soft drink, and with equal politeness Chloe would refuse. Then they’d get down the serious business of him prying and her blocking.

Ninety minutes later, she’d hear the front door squeak, the chair in the waiting room rattle and she would stand. “Goodbye Doctor.”

“Same time next week?” he would enquire of Laura as she paid the bill.

Outside mother and daughter bought ice cream from the corner shop and ate it sitting by the river. Chloe always had vanilla. A ritual even in the middle of winter. Chloe did much better with consistency according to the psychiatrist’s reports. He was wrong about that, as he was wrong about so much else. She loved the challenge of something new and exciting. As she finished the last of the cone and wiped her mouth, she debated ordering strawberry next week and watching her mother’s reaction.

Chloe remained silent on the trip home, weighing up what she’d learned.

Ryan’s car was parked in its usual place. Her mother smiled when she saw it, the new boyfriend always made her smile. She never smiled at her daughter.

“Go and play for a while,” her mother urged, and Chloe returned to her train set.

When they thought they were alone, they returned to the argument – what to do about Chloe.

Despite closed doors, Chloe could hear everything and when the sound levels dropped, she would sneak closer and listen through the keyhole. Unlike the psychiatrist’s office, she’d made sure her bedroom door never squeaked.

“She’s wrapping that useless shrink around her finger.” Ryan’s voice was determined. “She will be thirteen this birthday, and heading into high school. She’s dangerous!”

“Ryan, she’s a child. She’s always been different. Losing her father…”

His voice dropped too low for her to hear, even with her ear pressed up against the keyhole. “No, you are wrong.” Her mother protested. “The investigation proved it was an accident.”

She recognised the note in her mother’s voice as he returned to the car crash that killed her father. Ryan Tunstall was typical of his profession, a nosey copper. Only now he was meddling in her affairs. And that wouldn’t do. She needed to know what he knew. His whispering voice was annoying, how was she supposed to make decisions if she couldn’t hear? Her grandmother had whispered too. Until a mix up with her medication silenced her voice forever.

The polished floorboards were cold, an icy draught blew down the corridor, and Chloe retreated to bed. In three days time it would be her birthday. A year since her father died. She remembered the knock on the front door, the man standing there in his blue uniform with its gold buttons. Life had been peaceful – just her and her mother – until six months ago.

Outside, the night was silent. In the distance, she could hear the goods trains rattling over the distant plains. As the trains whistle faded, the murmuring voices increased in volume.

She could hear her mother’s voice, tender, gentle. Not like the one she used for her daughter. Chloe’s face lost all expression. Her father hated that blank look. He said girls should always be smiling. She wondered whether he’d been smiling when he realised he was going to die.

Quietly getting out of bed, she put on a dressing gown, and returned to her listening post.

Ryan the meddler, assuming the child was asleep, was speaking more loudly. Or it may have been his attempts to convince her mother. But she’d already made her own.

When lunch arrived, she focussed on the food. Her approach was methodical. Salt and pepper were added to the chips, followed by a sprinkle of vinegar. She always ate the smallest chips first, arranging the larger ones in order of size. Then she started on the fish, ending with the chips.

When Chloe’s chocolate ice cream arrived, she began without enthusiasm. In hindsight, she’d have preferred vanilla. Tiramisu arrived for the adults. Lunch was eaten largely in silence. Chloe’s internal world was alive to the plans she’d carefully carried out over the last week. Her excitement grew steadily, her muscles tense with suppressed energy. Waiting…

Lunch finished, they returned to the car, and Ryan drove them home. Chloe could see him dividing his attention between the road, and his back seat passenger.

Her face creased in a secret smile, as she anticipated the highlight of her birthday. On their way inside the house, Ryan’s mobile rang and she watched him pacing in the garden as he spoke. She watched him go inside. Raised voices came clearly to Chloe’s ears as the argument heated up. She smiled. It was unfolding just as she had planned it.

“We were supposed to have dinner tonight,” Laura’s complaint came clearly to Chloe’s ears. “Our first dinner as a family, and now you tell me you have to work?”

“It’s an emergency. They wouldn’t have called me in if they had someone else…sweetheart.” She could hear him murmuring soppy words to her mother. Disgusted Chloe stood and returned to the trains.

She heard Ryan’s car leave, the headlights spearing into the dusk. In the kitchen she watched her mother pouring another glass of wine.

Puff, puff went the engine. The whistle cut through the still evening air. Long plumes of black smoke wrapped around the carriages. Click clack of the wheels. Huffing and puffing as the red engine worked hard. In the cabin, a man shovelled coal into the firebox, wiping his forehead. Puff, puff as the engine raced over the flat plains.

Chloe could hear the good express train leave Whitworth Station and head towards Colbrook. A glance at the clock. She could imagine the screech as the brakes were applied. The crash of the car, and the sound of tearing metal. The ear splitting scream. Alongside the tracks, metal fragments of the wrecked car. The shocked expression as the guard looked in horror at the broken body. The smell of steam, petrol, and blood.

Chloe smiled and walked to the lounge room pausing at the door. “Good night Mother.”

“Good night Chloe. I hope you’ve had a wonderful birthday?”

“Yes, Mother.” Turning, she walked away but not before her eyes quickly checked the table. He’d taken the tube of wintergreen ointment with him. Her birthday treats weren’t over yet.

She cleaned her teeth carefully moving from right to left, changing into her blue pyjamas and curling up in bed. With a broad smile, she closed her eyes and was instantly asleep.

The rata-tat-tat of knuckles on the front door made her stir.

Footsteps approached her bedroom door, then left. Pursed lips cut a sharp line across her face, and she waited, and waited and waited.

Pulling on her dressing gown she walked to the door, but to her dismay she could hear nothing. A glance at the clock showed it was just after midnight. There were lights on in the house, and cars parked outside. There were no voices, no shouting, and no tears. Silence.

Her desire to know overrode her innate caution. She misjudged her footfalls on the polished timber floor and the board squeaked. No response and her wariness grew. Putting her hand in her pocket, her fingers clasped the pocketknife.

Chloe’s favourite eavesdropping spot was to the left of the double doors leading into the living room. When she placed her ear against the gap she could hear nothing. The house felt different, tense on edge and waiting for something to happen.

It wasn’t like this when her father was killed. In her burning need to know, she pushed against the door in order to hear, and it moved. She leapt back, startled like a deer in the spotlight.

“If you want to know what happened Chloe, perhaps you’d better come in,” her mother said, opening the double doors. Chloe’s jaw dropped, the words she sought vanished, and her mouth opened and closed without speech.

In her pocket, fingers curled around the sharp knife. Her body tensed as adrenalin flooded her system.

On the sofa opposite, his uniform torn and stained, sat Ryan Tunstall. A line of blood trickled down his face. He looked just like the guard from the train. But he wasn’t broken, his chest was rising and falling and his tired brown eyes glinted in the light. Standing alongside him was the psychiatrist.

“What did you put in the wintergreen?” Ryan’s voice even as he held up the plastic evidence bag containing the tube of ointment.

She laughed. “I saved some of Gran’s green pills. She always said they made her see things. It was easy to remove the contents from gelatine capsules. I knew the wintergreen stuff would help them get into your blood and you’d start seeing things. Did they work?” the curiosity clear in her voice.

“Yes.”

“Tell me,” she asked licking her dry lips.

“In a moment.”

“You said you saved some of Gran’s pills, after you’d made sure of the overdose?”

“No, she couldn’t be involved,” her mother’s voice anguished. “She was only 12, there is no way she could be involved in murder.” An ocean of pain in the outcry.

“Chloe?” asked the psychiatrist, the man she fenced with every week. This time he’s crossed the line from fencing to active prying. Just like her grandmother.

The balance had shifted; she’d lost control and found herself answering. “She was going to talk to you. Make sure that I got locked up.”

“So you silenced her voice?” he asked. “What about your father?”

“No!” her mother began to sob, sinking onto the sofa alongside the snitch she was going to marry. The man she hadn’t killed – yet.

Ryan wrapped his arm around her mother’s shoulders.

Chloe looked around the room realising other people were present too. A couple of burly men in police uniforms had moved behind her.

She closed her mouth, and fixed them all with an expressionless stare. The muscles in her legs tensed and she stood on the balls of her feet, drawing the pocketknife from her dressing gown. Raising her arm over her head she exploded across the room mouth open, screaming. She ran straight towards Ryan Tunstall, aiming the knife at his chest.

A scuffle as her arms were grabbed and pressure put on her wrists, making her drop the blade. Screams and spittle sprayed from her mouth as she fought with everything she possessed. It wasn’t until she felt the prick of the needle that her strength ebbed.

Ryan held a sobbing Laura tightly in his arms. Chloe’s penknife was sealed into an evidence bag and handcuffs put on her wrists. The grate and click, as they closed set her teeth on edge.

“Can I take the red engine with me?” her question addressed to Ryan.

Reaching into the toy box, he removed the battered red engine and one of the carriages. Her handcuffed wrists held them tightly against her body.

“Ready to go?”

She nodded. Pausing at the front door, she turned, her eyes focussed solely on Ryan.

The hatred flowing from their steely gaze made him shiver involuntarily.

He knew then that while she was alive it would never be over.

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