Mary dreamed of motion, head bobbing as if lulled by the clacking wheels of a train over rickety tracks. Nestled into the threadbare cushions of her second-hand couch, her arm stiffened in the curl of a question mark around the phone cradled against her chest. She waited for a call. For an answer. For her son Charlie to walk through the apartment door, arms burdened with the groceries she’d sent him to buy, twelve hours earlier.
His voice teased from his cell phone’s voice mailbox, a cheerful promise of a call returned promptly, delivered to dead air.
Too soon for a missing person’s report, the police had said.
Mary knew better.
Yet, she waited.
The last time Charlie wandered, they found him lying naked in a rainstorm. His head gashed and bloodied, he rested on the sidewalk outside the local 7-11, listening for thunder in the pavement. The time before that, he’d crashed a Little League baseball game, sprinting through the outfield pursuing a bunny who’d challenged him to a race.
Mary never should have let him go, but Charlie had been doing so much better.
He promised to be trustworthy if Mary trusted him, and they swore on it, pinky-style, like when he was a little boy still obsessed with his model train set.
How easy it is to veer from the track.
An errant stone. A deep puddle.
Move too fast, move too slow, and life devolves into a train wreck that you gawk at and reach for and scream at, knowing there is nothing you can do to stop its chugging, screeching, deadly motion.
A freight train isn’t some toy that can be placed back on its course.
Through the light of television infomercials, Mary ventured toward Charlie’s room. Not a speck of dust graced the dressers, books arranged like stiff-spined soldiers in height order on the bookshelf. The bed mocked the night’s disarray with perfectly tucked hospital corners.
She reached between the mattress and box spring, searching. Her fingertips grazed plastic. Mary twisted the cap from the hidden prescription bottle.
Pills stacked to the top like an arsenal of discarded silver bullets.
Trust me, Mom, Charlie had said.
Betrayal was a bitter tonic.
She trudged toward the kitchen, guilt slackening her steps.
She picked up the phone.
911. What’s your emergency?
A train whistle wailed in the distant night, mournful and lonely as a ghost.