Short Story: Pale Horse and a Runaway Train

Although the room was silent, save for the whir of the A/C unit in the window, his head was filled with noise. It was too loud, too much, all of his thoughts zipping and careening through his head in abstract patterns as if mirroring the tie he was wearing. Snippets of conversation, wisps of emotions, and analog facts all circling, piling onto one another mercilessly. You’re our only option…It’s hopeless…wrongful death…manufacturing error…his children…cutting corners…Son, please… He couldn’t focus. He needed to to think. He needed to breathe.

Lucas sprang to his feet, gasping as if he’d just burst from the surface of the water. The air was stale and smelled like a car in summer that’s been in the sun too long. His eyes flitted wildly around the dimly lit room, particles of dust suspended in the streaks of light through the blinds. It was a small room, two long desks with two chairs set before each and one behind, a trashcan, computers, telephones, and–there!–a wooden door with a glass pane cut into the center, reading “Wilks & Reid, Attorneys at Law” in big red and gold letters. They were backward to Lucas, but he’d seen that door and those words so many times over the past 11 years that he’d begun to feel as if they had become ingrained on his eyeballs. He hated those words, the grand, smug letters. His partner, Ian Wilks, had crafted the logo. The robust design fit the hotshot’s attitude perfectly. With his dark, slicked-back hair, sparkling smile, and thousand-dollar suits, the young mogul was the embodiment of every hated aspect of lawyers. Lucas doubted he noticed, though; he was a hedonist whose eyes only saw two things: women and money. Everything else was inconsequential.

Compared to Ian, Lucas, with his casual jeans/sport coat attire and unimposing, lean build, looked like a child walking in his father’s too-big shoes. Ian made him feel like he was back at Blueridge Academy, completely outdone and ostracized. At least that didn’t last long, he thought, grimacing. His track scholarship had been revoked after he tore up his knee and couldn’t run. So back to Riverside High he’d gone, though they hadn’t been too accepting of him there either (No “Ridgies” allowed). He spotted his high school diploma hanging a bit lopsided on the wall, SALUTATORIAN arcing across the top. Well, he’d had that going for him.

“What?” Ian asked, strolling into the room, a bag of potato chips in hand. His dark three-piece suit was covered in crumbs. For someone who ate so often, he was still surprisingly in shape.

“I, uh, I have to go,” Lucas mumbled, piling his papers into his briefcase and slamming it shut. He attempted a smile, but it eroded into a half grimace.

“Did you finally meet a lady friend?” He cocked an eyebrow and grinned, ramming a handful of potato chips into his mouth. “You know,” he said between crunches, his mouth wide open, “You really need to relax. You’re always so strung out. Just breathe this wonderful air and smile.”

Lucas tried to slow himself; he needed to appear normal. “Oh, like you’re the picture of tranquility.”

Ian plopped into his chair and spread his hands. “Go with the flow, man. Wherever the wind takes you. That’s what I always do.”

“Only as long as there’s money waiting where it’s leading you,” he muttered.    

“Hey, as long as there’s something in it for me, I’m up for anything,” he smirked. Lucas grunted in response.

“So listen,” Ian said, sitting up, rifling through some papers. “I looked over that case your old man brought in. And if I were you, I’d pass on it.”

“Why?” Lucas asked, throwing on his sport coat.

“First, the family is dirt poor, so it’s not like you’d be getting paid much, and second, they don’t even have a case. Look,” he pointed to a document with Marble Harbor Inc. written on the top. “The report shows that it was a malfunction. Sure, the company might have skipped out on a few regulations and safety concerns, but that’s for another case because it obviously wasn’t what caused the explosion.” He tossed Lucas a thick report and diagram. “See, it was a manufacturing error with the explosives. There was a short in the trigger system. It glitched, showed that it was disarmed when it was actually ready to blow, someone hit the button on accident, and boom. It had nothing to do with the company. Accidents happen in that quarry all the time. And besides, it’s just some guy from South End; it’s not like anyone really cares.”

Lucas stopped. Did he really just say that? “You’re a real bundle of empathy aren’t you,” he said, glaring at him, his hand gripping the doorknob tightly. He flung the report back at him.

“Look, it sucks for the family that they lost…uh, whats-his-name–”

“Patrick Singer, Ian. His name was Patrick Singer,” Lucas snapped. “He had three kids and a wife.”

“Yeah, whatever.” He shrugged, gulping down a Coke and booting up his computer, a picture of him and his car behind the office logo as his wallpaper. “Look, it’s a shame they lost ol’ Patty, but you need to tell them to pick up the pieces and move on. One widow against a multi-billion dollar corporation? It’ll never happen. Now, if you were the defense attorney for Marble Harbor, that would be a worthwhile case. You could make some serious cash off of…”

Lucas didn’t hear the rest as he slammed the door behind him. It made him sick, that someone could be so involved in how much money they were making that they wouldn’t even try to help a grieving family. But, as he hopped down the two flights of stairs and out onto the street, he couldn’t help but admit that his partner had a point, young and stupid as he was. It was a hopeless case, and one that could never be easily won, if at all. He could try to win it, but it would only serve to build the family’s hopes up just so they could be knocked down again.       

He walked aimlessly down the block, peering closely at the faces of the people passing him by. They didn’t seem troubled. They seemed happy, or at least not stressed. But what else had he expected from people in North End? It’s not like they were starving or homeless or wondering if they’d still have a job in the morning. He struggled to contort his face like theirs, masking his inner turmoil. There, he thought, now I’m invisible. But, try as he might, his dark skin made him stick out like a crow among church doves.

He took a left and reached his car. It looked ancient (which it was) but Lucas loved it. His father had bought it for him after he graduated high school. A black 1970 Camaro, it was his prized possession. A compact two-door with two wide, white pinstripes from hood to trunk, it definitely had style. He’d named it Soul after the band Soul Asylum (their song “Runaway Train” had been his favorite that year, and he still had a cassette tape of it that he played sometimes). No matter how much money he made, he could never part with it.  

He rammed it into first gear and jolted into the flow of traffic. With thoughts of his graduation and of his father jumbling together in his mind, Lucas decided he’d go see his mother in South End. His parents had lived in that old house since before he was born, and it was falling apart. He’d offered for them to come and live with him (they were getting on in years, after all, and it would help for them to be close by so he could take care of them), but his father had refused. If there was one thing Lucas had the hardest time understanding, it the enigma that was his father, especially his pride. He told his son that class was everything, that appearing to have a good life would surely make one follow, but then he wouldn’t even move into a house absent of leaks in the roof and with a central heating system that worked more than 13% of the time. But no donations, no handouts, he could only live on what he earned.

Lucas’s phone buzzed, and he glanced at the caller I.D: DANNY REID. Speak of the devil…he thought with a sigh.

“Hey, Pop,” he said with false cheer.

“Lucas, how’s the case going?” His voice was deep and scratchy, a result of smoking five packs a week.

Lucas hesitated. “Well, uh, you see Dad–”

There was a deep sigh on the other end of the line. “You’re not taking it, are you?”

“You didn’t let me finish. I…I’m not sure yet. I just need a little bit more time.”

“How much more time do you need? The man’s funeral is today, and you promised the family you’d have an answer by now. You don’t think they deserve that much?”

“No, no, it-it’s not that. It’s just…this case just isn’t that simple. There’s a lot of factors and things at stake here.”

“What’s so complicated about it?” Danny’s voice was rising. “That company thought they’d save a few bucks by trading speed for safety. And it got a man killed! Either you take the case or you don’t. It is that simple.”

“But it’s not. The report–it shows the explosive was faulty, but it was a fluke. It was just a freak accident. Marble Harbor had nothing to do with it. It would just be a money pit. It wouldn’t be profitable.” Lucas rumbled to a stop at the red light, watched as a mother drug her two children along in each hand, and prayed his father could somehow understand.

“How can you even say this!” his father yelled. “I didn’t work my whole life away to put you through school to become a smart, useful lawyer for you to not put that to good use when I need you! Patrick was my friend! I owe it to his family to bring the people responsible for his death to justice! And you owe me that, for all of the sacrifices I’ve made in order for you to get where you are. The least you could do is show me some respect.”   

There was a long pause as the silence, like his father’s disappointment, grew. Lucas didn’t know what to say. He supposed his father was right. He had these skills, and he needed to use them. Besides, maybe now he could finally regain some respect in South End. But he couldn’t say it. He couldn’t do it. He was scared.   

“…Dad? I’m sorry, I just…I don’t think I can, in good judgment, take this case. It would only hurt the family.”

After another minute of quiet, his father finally spoke, his voice soft and shaking. “So that’s it, then? You just give up.”

“I’m not giving up, Dad. I just can’t take the case. Look, maybe…maybe we can start a fund to help the Singers. You know, go towards to kids’ educations or paying off the house? We can still help them…”

“No,” his voice was shaking more noticeably now. Is he…crying? Lucas wondered in disbelief. He’d never seen his father even come close to crying. “You’ve made your decision not to help how they need you to. You don’t get to try to make that up,” he spat the words. “I see money and image is more important to you than family.”

“No, wait–Dad!”

“You’ve made your choice. Live with it.” There was a click, then nothing.

“Dad!” Lucas yelled. His finger hovered over the re-dial button, but he couldn’t bring himself to go through with it, instead choosing to slam the phone in the cupholder and punch the steering wheel. His left elbow against the mirror and his fist against his temple, he thought about how he’d gone wrong. The stubborn old man can’t learn when to let things go. I’d be a fool to take this case. This is not on me. “It’s not my fault!” he screamed to the empty car. He pulled to the shoulder of the road, at the base of a hill. He needed to catch his breath.

In a huff, Lucas got out of his car, slamming the door behind him. He placed both hands on the roof of the car, trying to steady his breathing. He glanced at his reflection in the mirror. Two deep set brown eyes stared back at him. They looked tired, weary, bags piling up beneath them. A crooked nose and a pair of horn-rimmed glasses teetering on top of it gave him a slightly disheveled look. His face was heavily lined and gray hairs lurked on the edges of his hairline and sideburns. He certainly wasn’t as young as he used to be. And this job had definitely taken its toll. Had he really said that it wouldn’t be “profitable” to take the case? Maybe I am turning into one of them, a slimy money leech like Ian. He shook his head. It couldn’t be.

But music distracted him from his thoughts. It was coming from the top of the hill, the cemetery. Oh no…he thought. He was going to cry. It was Patrick Singer’s funeral. The family was seated, and four people who appeared to be his wife and three kids were standing up at the coffin. It was too far away to make out what they were saying, but he could see the youngest daughter’s small frame shaking as she cried. Her brother, the oldest at 16, stared stoically ahead, his arm draped around her shoulder and his mother’s waist. The casket was piled high with flowers, and the sky was a clear crisp blue as the sun set in the background, feebly trying to ease their pain with its beauty. But to Lucas, it just seemed cruel. How could this world seem so splendid when theirs was crumbling around them?

He jumped into his car and sped off, completely missing the turn to his mother’s house. He just drove, not knowing where or for how long, cranking the radio up to try and drown out his thoughts. Thunder rumbled in the distance as lightning streaked across the sky. Music had always helped him cope, completely taking him out of his present surroundings and transporting him somewhere better, somewhere bearable.

It wasn’t long before the world was dark and Lucas was coming down out of his protective musical bubble. He started to become more aware of his surroundings and the circuitous route he’d taken. He was just outside of the main downtown of  South End, and as he crossed a small rickety bridge that was sure to have a troll slumbering beneath, Lucas realized where he was. The chain link fence that materialized up ahead just confirmed his suspicions. His headlights illuminated a sign that read: “Blueridge Brothers Amusement Park”. He couldn’t believe he’d managed to get here. He pulled his car into one of the front parking spaces and, grabbing the flashlight from his glove compartment, exited his car.

The Ferris wheel loomed dark and tall ahead of him, the central eye of the park, the guardian. A rickety wooden roller coaster and small kiddie rides clung nearby to its protective legs. Lucas came to the chain link fence and, with practiced ease he’d almost forgotten about, he scaled it, threw his legs over the top, and tumbled to the ground. He almost expected to hear a second thump beside him, that of his sister, like old times, but it never came.

Clicking his flashlight on, he wandered through the park, past the booths where he’d won a huge stuffed panda bear in middle school by scoring 10 baskets in a row on the hoops machine. He’d given it to the girl next to him, and they’d spent the rest of the day together, laughing and screaming on the rides. He could practically taste the burnt popcorn in his mouth as he passed the food stands, hearing his mother chiding him for eating too much cotton candy and his father responding that if he got sick, it was his own fault. The blithe laughs of children of all ages and merry music from the surround speakers floated faintly to him.

Lucas had been walking without much of a care nor destination, but finally arrived at the carousel, and his breath caught. He wanted to cry, seeing it in such a dilapidated state. His flashlight shone on each of the horses’ faces, paint chipping and legs missing, some hanging askew from their poles. The mirrors were shattered and all of the beautiful artwork had been worn away by the wind and rain. As he paced around it, he spotted Rusty. He was a white horse with red and blue reigns and golden hair adorned with emerald ribbons, majestically rearing up on two legs; he was his horse, the one he’d ridden since he was three and his father had first set him upon it. He’d been scared at his first, his tiny hands clutching the pole before him, eyes scrunched tightly closed. But over the years, Rusty had become a trusted friend, and where he’d first kissed the girl with the panda bear.

With a caution even he was surprised by, Lucas carefully perched himself upon Rusty’s back, lowering one hand to feel the L.R. carved on the underside of his belly. He smiled, leaning his head against the golden pole, the bright swirling light of the carousel reflected in his eyes. Closing his eyes, he felt himself rising and falling in time to the music. His mother’s smile came to mind, as she watched him giggling on the ride. She waved and he waved back. A quiet laugh escaped his lips. He felt light, like he was a child again. It was as if the weight of the world was lifted from his shoulders. His worries became evanescent.  There was no case, no fight with his father, no pressure to do what was right. There was only the bubbling happiness of his three-year-old self opening his eyes on the carousel for the first time and feeling like he was flying.

Lucas wanted to feel that again. He wanted to feel light and free. He wanted to fly. No more sadness, no more discontent, no more obligations. He would do what he wanted to do, and be who he wanted to be.

It didn’t take long for her to pick up. “Why hello, sweetheart. How are you?”

“I’m fine, Mom,” he said, his free hand stroking the side of Rusty’s rigid mane.

“What is it, sweetie? You don’t sound alright.”

“I’m okay,” he sniffed as his eyes started to water. His throat felt tight. “Really, I am. I was just calling to tell you that I love you.”

She gave a short laugh. “Well I love you, too, dear. Are you sure there’s nothing wrong?”

“Yeah,” he said, taking a deep breath and trying to keep his voice from shaking so terribly. “I just…I need to go away for a little while. I need a fresh start. And I’m leaving tonight. I just thought I’d let you know, so you wouldn’t worry.”

She paused. “Where will you go? What will you do?”

He laughed. “I’m not really sure yet. I figured I’d drive east until I found a place I liked. Maybe try my hand at music again. Do what makes me happy again, you know?”

“Of course, sweetie. You know, your father likes to believe he’s the reason you are where you are today, but it’s only you who could’ve done that. You can be anything you want to be, Lucas, and I’ll always love you, no matter what you choose to be.”

The tears were flowing in rivers down his cheeks. “Mom,” he fake groaned. “Quit it. Just let everyone know what I’m doing, if they ask. I’ll call you as soon as I settle in somewhere. I love you.”

“I love you, too. Just, promise me you’ll be careful. I’ve already got my hands full with your sister and father, don’t know if there’s much more space in my mind for another someone to worry about.”

“I promise, Mom…G’night.”

“Goodnight, sweetheart.”

He ended the call and, in a few short minutes, was back in his car and headed home. He packed a small bag, left a note and key under his doormat, grabbed his ficus and his keyboard, and threw his mountain bike in the trunk. With the windows rolled down and “Runaway Train” blaring through the speakers, Lucas drove out of Blueridge and head first into the pounding rain, waiting with anxious anticipation for whatever adventure would come next…


“I can go where no one else can go;

I know what no one else knows;

Here I am just drownin’ in the rain

with a ticket for a runaway train.


And everything seems cut and dry,

day and night

earth and sky,

Somehow I just don’t believe it.


Runaway train, never goin’ back,

wrong way on a one-way track;

Seems like I should be getting somewhere,

somehow I’m neither here nor there…”      


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