The Confident Christianity Dorothy Sayer Award to Brayden Hirsch
|June 8, 2011||Posted by admin under 2011 Winners||
Dorothy Sayer’s Award
Abbotsford, BC Canada
(High School Category)
Brayden Hirsch is a teenage author from Vancouver, British Columbia. Other than working up stories of suspense in well-lit rooms, his passions include spending time with friends and family, being a movie buff, and watching football.
A Train Story
by Brayden Hirsch
All Rights Reserved
Watching the kid sit there, with those tiny, pale hands clasped, head bowed and eyes shut tight like some little priest—well, I should’ve known. God smiles down on his kind.
Guys like me? Not so much.
“And God, bless us and keep us and help the train ride to end fast, so we can see mommy and daddy.” He sighed a quick “amen” and dug a spoon into his oatmeal. In a matter of seconds, penitent angel became snorting pig as he devoured his breakfast.
My stomach rumbled, but I didn’t hear it over the clatter of the dining car. My gaze soon trailed out the window.
Winter in the Rockies was something I’d never experienced, and so far I wasn’t impressed. After all, snow to California was like Elvis to my father and mother—foreign and unwanted. The train wobbled drunkenly onward, through frozen air and gusts of wind so cold that I could see them blowing like billows of smoke.
“More coffee, boy?” came a voice.
Boy? I looked up and bang, my whole world stopped turning, just like that. I found myself staring at the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen—one of the many, many most beautiful girls I’d ever seen, now that I think about it. Definitely the most beautiful waitress I’d ever seen. Blonde hair, pulled back into a ponytail and shimmering in the white light, rolled-up sleeves and a red apron stained with coffee—I would’ve taken that train to hell and back, if she was on it.
She cleared her throat, and somehow I managed to snap out of my trance.
“Uh, no. I’m not much for coffee, sorry,” I said, watching her closely.
Without making eye contact she bent closer, snatched up my mug, and propped it atop her tray, where mountains of crumpled napkins and dirty plates crowded the surface. Her golden ponytail brushed by my face as she whirled around. I sucked in a deep breath, trying to catch the lingering scent of her perfume.
All I smelt was the manure on the old farmer sitting behind me.
The dining car buzzed with voices and the clatter of mugs and plates as the passengers ate breakfast. The hundreds of travelers during the war had given this eastbound train to Chicago its popularity, and even pushing ten years after, I couldn’t count one empty seat. If I could’ve, Stubbs and I would never have wound up at the same greasy table as the praying boy and his grandmother.
Speaking of Stubbs.
Sprawled out on his chair, my friend continued to snore in spite of the racket. While most of us greasers actually greased our hair, I’d never seen Stubbs without that black beanie cap, perched on his perfectly round head. I didn’t want to. Seemed to me, he was greasy enough, everywhere except for his hair.
I nudged his arm. “Wake up.”
He grunted, and his flabby cheeks twisted in a yawn. His breath stunk like curdled milk. “Thanks, Mr. President,” he breathed, smiling with his eyes still shut tight. “Glad you liked my hat. God bless Am—”
“Snap out of it,” I said, and hit him again.
Stubbs lurched up, looked around, and then sat back. “Still in the mountains,” he said. “You know, I don’t like snow much.”
“Neither do I.”
He stretched his arms back, only to hit the farmer behind us in the head, knocking the cigar from his mouth. Stubbs mumbled an apology and his eyes fell onto the boy’s red bowl. “Say, Ace. I’m hungry.”
“Tell me about it.”
“Got any money?”
“Not a dime.” The train swung wide around the corner of a mountain so high that clouds devoured its top half, and I leaned forward on my elbows to look Stubbs in the eye. “Kid won’t share us a crumb, either.”
“You ask him?”
“A while ago, yeah. He ignored me and got on with his praying.”
A tired grin played with the corners of Stubbs’s dirt-smudged lips. “Well, then, looks like we’ll have to ask again.” While the frail little grandmother ran a knife through her fried egg and nibbled like a petrified mouse on her dry toast, Stubbs leaned over and gripped the edge of the boy’s red bowl. “Hey, kid. You know what happens when you eat too much of this stuff, don’t you?”
The boy stopped chewing with his mouth full. “No.”
“Well,” Stubbs said, winking at me. “A bowl or two a day and your cheeks start puffin’ up like you got allergies. Morning after morning, you go through heaps of the stuff, but does it go through you? Naw. You just get fatter and fatter.”
His jaw dropped, and while his lips only trembled, his eyes seemed to beg for our mercy.
“Pretty soon you’re so fat you can’t even walk. No running, no playing. You just sit there at the table, waiting for breakfast. You’ll get so fat your parents call the doctor. He shakes his head and puts you on antibiotics. They taste nothin’ like oatmeal.”
I added, “And to think that it all started with one bowl.” In truth, some mornings I’d consume two and a half bowls of oatmeal, and I was skinnier than this little boy. I wasn’t about to tell him that, though. Instead I kept my voice as soft and mysterious as I could and said, “So, kid. How many bowls do you eat?”
The rusty spoon clattered to the table. Tears left glistening tracks on his rosy cheeks. He shoved the bowl away, and it skidded to a halt between Ace and me.
As we downed the last couple of bites, my eyes trailed to the old lady at the boy’s side. Her wispy gray eyebrows had scrunched into a frown, her little blue hat slanted on her frazzled hair as she gazed from me, to Stubbs and back. But she said nothing.
I shrugged and looked away. Outside, spotless fields of white spread on every side, but I spied a cluster of buildings up ahead. A minute later, we started slowing down.
Finally, we were here. Somewhere.
“Say, Ace,” Stubbs said, swallowing the last bite and scratching his head. “What time is it?”
I tugged on the silver chain that dangled from inside my leather jacket, and pulled out my gleaming silver pocket watch. Before I even looked at the time I stroked its smooth, silver edge. The pocket watch was decades old. Once, it had belonged to my grandfather, and before that, his grandfather. Thick layers of rust tainted its silver surface, probably lowering its value by a mile, but it still felt like a fortune to me.
“Almost eight o’clock,” I said. “Somehow we’re still on time, even in the snow.”
Minutes later, the train rolled to a halt beside a wide, ice-plastered platform, where travelers waited like statues of stone, frozen in the snowfall.. Behind the small, wood-walled station towered a few buildings. Smoke unfurled from chimneys across the sea of white roofs. I sighed.
“Well, Stubbs. What do we have, here?”
The farmer behind us turned. “Small town,” he rasped. “On the map it’s called Macdonald Falls. It doesn’t look like much, but there are those who call it home.”
“You live here?”
He grunted. “Thank goodness, no. I just ride the train a lot.”
Meanwhile passengers were standing, thanking the waitress and grabbing their bags. Eyes still fiery, the old lady across the table slowly unfolded and stood up. Her shriveled little hand reached for her umbrella and the bag at her feet, and with a nod at her grandson she started toward the doors at the end of the car. The boy hurried into his checkered sweater and followed his grandmother away from the table and down the aisle, saying something about finally seeing his parents. Soon most of the passengers had filed out of the dining car, leaving only Stubbs, me, and the farmer behind us.
“Say, Ace,” Stubbs said. “We got no more money.”
“I know that.”
“So, technically speaking, we can’t go any further.”
“Not without a ticket we can’t.”
He slumped further into his chair. “Nobody ’round here seems welcome to runaways.”
I frowned. “How do you figure? Who knows we’re running away?”
“Well, we’re alone, we’re young, we—”
“Nobody knows how old we really are.”
“They can tell,” Stubbs said. “Besides, that angel who served you coffee has got to be suspicious, us riding a dining car and not ordering anything.” A pause. “Why, here she comes.”
Sure enough, the angel was shuffling down the aisle, scrubbing at tables and collecting empty plates and mugs as she went. “Last call to get off, boys,” she said, ruby lips unsmiling as usual. “Or are you two staying all the way in to Chicago?”
I flashed her a grin. “I’d love to stay on and watch you wait tables all the way to Chicago, honey, but—”
“—you’re broke,” she finished.
Stubbs moaned. “Is it that obvious?”
“It’s obvious that you’re a couple of runaways without a penny to your names. Seems to me you’re bullies, too. What were you doing, stealing that poor boy’s oatmeal from right under his nose? You should be ashamed of yourselves.”
“So we’re hungry, what’s the big deal?”
“Whatever you say,” she called over her shoulder as she started away with her tray of dishes. “Just don’t come crying to me when they throw you off into the snow ’cause you got no tickets.”
I stood up and called after her. “Yeah? What if I have the tickets, right here in my pocket?”
“Not my job to take your tickets,” she said. She kept walking, and I slumped back into my seat.
A minute or two passed. New passengers started sauntering into the dining car, chattering amongst themselves. Two old men came in—one had a gray beard with streaks of white and the other a white beard with streaks of gray, and a plump redhead with too much makeup on followed them in. A host of others began to settle into the seats.
“Maybe we’ll make it,” Ace muttered.
I looked out the window and spotted the little boy and his grandmother, trudging across the white platform as a new gust of wind blasted snowflakes in their faces. Smothered in snow already, the boy raised a hand to his eyes to shield the cloud of white, and his sweater lifted a little.
That was when I spotted it, wedged under his belt.
A chain that gleamed silver in the sun.
“Stubbs,” I said, jumping to my feet. “You see that? The kid…he’s got a watch. It’s mine, ain’t it?”
His squinty eyes darted to the platform, and he gave a nervous laugh. “I wouldn’t bet my life on it, Ace.”
“It’s mine,” I said louder, but no one seemed to notice. “It’s mine!”
“Ace, don’t you think it could be a different watch?”
His question wasn’t halfway finished before I started down the aisle, almost knocking over the unsmiling angel on my way. Steaming coffee splashed from a pot in her hands.
“Hey,” she squealed.
For once, I ignored her. When I burst through the door the frozen air hit me harder than I thought—so hard that I could barely breathe, but it didn’t matter. Before long I’d jumped onto the platform, and I could feel my shoes sliding on the snow and ice. “Hey,” I yelled, and heard my voice crack. “Hey! You, kid—turn around!”
“Ace, wait up,” came a voice from behind me, and I glanced back to see Stubbs, stumbling after me, one hand flapping like the wing of a flightless bird and the other clutching his beanie cap to his head, protecting it from the wind. “Ace, it could’ve been an accident,” he called.
“Accident your hat,” I yelled back. I turned back and kept running. “Watch was a gift from my granddaddy, God rest his soul.”
“Ace, pipe down!” Stubbs cried.
People were staring, now.
I looked up ahead to see the little boy tugging on his grandmother’s sleeve, near the edge of the platform, and they too stopped to see the commotion. I didn’t stop until I was at their side. Then I slid to a halt and grabbed the boy by the collar.
The old lady screamed.
“Give it to me,” I said.
Tears flooded the boy’s eyes, but he remained limp in my grasp.
“Give it to me!”
“What did you take?” the old lady said. It was the first thing I’d ever heard her say.
“He stole my watch.” I hoisted the boy off his feet and shook him. “Give it to me! It’s under your belt. I know it is. You can’t hide it.” I dropped him, and he collapsed to his knees.
Rivers of tears flowed down his face. Reluctantly, he retrieved the silver pocket watch. “Here, take it.”
Grabbing the chain, I smiled and turned around. What I saw made me cringe. A crowd had gathered on the platform—little old ladies and big, young men with bulging biceps, all of them giving me iron-hard stares. I gulped. “He stole my watch,” I said, my voice trembling. “It was a gift from…my granddaddy. He gave it to me when I was little.” Before I knew it, I had collapsed beside the boy, and we both sat there and sobbed as frigid winds buffeted our faces. “He stole my watch,” I kept mumbling.
A murmur washed through the crowd, and they started to turn away. I heaved a sigh.
Then, however, the boy piped up. “He stole my porridge!” he declared, and the crowd turned back, even as the train started to inch down the tracks. More murmurs—I saw their lips move, but couldn’t hear them over the engine’s rumble. “You stole my porridge, and made fun of me,” he said.
As the scarlet Santa Fe engine pulled out of the station, leaving two hopeless runaways alone and snowed-in in an unknown town, I swore under my breath. We were stranded here. First it was ten yards away, then twenty, thirty. It picked up speed at fifty. I thought I saw a trail of smoke, spiraling from the windows of the dining car we had only just left, but I blinked and decided it was only my imagination.
“You said I’d get all fat if I ate too much,” the boy was saying. “But my granny said that wouldn’t happen, ‘cause I’m a growing boy.”
“So why’d you steal my watch?”
“I didn’t steal it. It was on the floor.”
Someone in the crowd spoke up. “Just leave the matter be. Take your watch and get out of here, boy.”
I was about to argue when I heard Stubbs gasp. I turned, and then it happened, right in front of our eyes.
A screech tore through the air, and a sound like thunder shook the platform. Everyone around me cringed and turned and smelt the smoke on the wind, saw the flames pour from the windows of train cars. In a matter of seconds, half a dozen cars hung off the track, tilted on their sides with smoke billowing everywhere. The Santa Fe engine at the front kept plowing through snow until it was out of sight, dragging the rest of the train away as if nothing had happened.
Everything fell silent.
Then the little boy started crying again.
What happened after that, I still don’t know. Time froze, it seemed, and the snowy world around me washed away. Only minutes after the explosion, with tongues of flame still dancing over the tracks, the crimson lights of a fire truck bled onto the snow, and along with a few other young volunteers, Stubbs and I went in to search the wreck for any signs of life. According to the report, published in the local paper that evening, gasoline from the dining car oven had pooled at the back door. When a passenger went outside for a smoke, he dropped his cigar and the explosion began, derailing the last six cars of the train.
One of them, we had ridden.
We emerged with what I remember to be thirteen men and women with sweltering burns. An ambulance carried them to the nearest hospital, but as for the rest? Dead.
Only a half hour of searching passed before they sent Stubbs and I back to the station—apparently dead bodies were too much for teenage boys like us. In reality, I could’ve been grown-up and old and still would’ve vomited at the sight of those charred, snow-covered bodies. And vomit I did, off the side of the platform.
I still have no idea how long I sat there in the cold, Stubbs at my side and paramedics crowding all around us, but I remember thinking long and hard about life, about oatmeal, and about the people on that train car.
The waitress, my unsmiling angel. Gone.
The two old men, with gray and white beards. Gone.
The plump redhead with too much makeup. Gone.
Even the fat old farmer behind us never survived. We found his body in the red snow. Gone.
“Why do you suppose we’re alive?” Stubbs said, partway through the day when the sun was enormous and white behind the clouds. I didn’t answer him, not then—there was nothing to say. I just stared at my feet, my shoes plastered in snow and ice and my legs so cold they were shaking. “I mean, really,” Stubbs continued, staring up at the sky. “We should’ve been on that train, right?”
“We didn’t have tickets,” I said quietly.
“But we weren’t about to get off at this dingy little town.”
That was when two brawny men hauled a stretcher by, with another bloody victim sprawled on top. I vomited again. I leaned over the side of the platform until I could vomit no more, and it was only my tears, plunging to the snowy ground below. Then I felt the soft grasp on my shoulder. I turned to see the checkered sweater, wet with snow and tears, of the little boy.
“I…I’m sorry,” he said.
Behind him stood his grandmother, hunched and teary, hair speckled with snowflakes, but I saw a smile on her pale lips. Looking at her, then back at him, I forced a weak laugh. “Sorry?” I said. “What for?”
“I stole your watch.”
I looked down at the silver chain, like ice in my numb hands. “Aw, kid, you did nothing wrong. We…we’re the ones who should be sorry.”
“Yeah,” Stubbs added, nodding. “I’ll buy you some porridge sometime, kid.”
He laughed, and I noticed his smile was missing the two front teeth. He ran to his grandmother, leaned up and whispered something in her ear, and returned to Stubbs and I with a question. “How about we go get something warm to drink?”
Stubbs jumped to his feet. “I thought you’d never ask.”
I wiped my tears away and patted the boy on the head. “So long as it’s not coffee.”
While a chorus of whimpers, moans, and the occasional scream still sounded on the platform, the old lady led us out the crowded doorway of the station, into the main street of Macdonald Falls. Squat wooden shops flanked the road, many of the doorways and windows dark and heaped with snow. On the right, a log-walled hut boasted an elaborate carving of a mug, hanging over one bright, candlelit doorway. Soon I was holding the door open for the three of them, and we sat down with four steaming mugs of hot cocoa. We planned to spend a half hour talking. The boy told us that he and his grandmother had come to Macdonald Falls to see his father, who worked in a nearby mine, and were staying right through Christmas. His mother had passed away from cancer. They listened while we talked of our home in California, and soon our half hour had multiplied.
“Now,” the old woman said, after we finally left the coffee shop. She handed me a few tattered bills. “That’s for a meal, maybe two. Maybe a night at the local inn.”
“Thanks,” I said, smiling and shoving the bills into my pocket. “Thanks a lot.”
After exchanging hugs with the pair, I looked up. The night sky shone with stars like diamonds, and cold gusts of wind blew silently across the street. I felt my pocket watch, and stared at its ticking hands for one last time. It was getting late. Stubbs waved down a cab for the two of them, and when the old lady climbed inside I gripped the boy by the shoulder.
“Here, kid,” I said, slipping the watch into his hands. “I…I don’t really use it much, anyway.”
Fireworks exploded in his eyes, and a smile blossomed on his face. “Really?”
I grinned. “See you ’round, kid.”
All in all, I lost a lot in that trip—I lost my grandfather’s precious watch, and more importantly my pride, and when we finally found our way back home all I got were cold glares from my parents and months stuck in my room, grounded—but I gained something precious, too. A memory. Not a day goes by that I don’t think of that train. When I go out, I see their faces in the crowds—my unsmiling angel, the little boy, even his grandmother. When someone whistles, I think of that big Santa Fe engine, and when I eat oatmeal, I cringe.
Stubbs flunked high school like everyone knew he would, but I’ve been to university, now. I’m making money and somehow I’ve learned to like coffee. I’ve never stepped on a train, since that day, yet I can’t help wonder what my life would be, if not for trains. If not for that little boy. Sometimes I wonder if he still has the watch, if he ever even thinks about me. All I know is that thanks to him and his grandmother, I made it home at last.
We took a bus.