Papa was at the war. The war that was very far away. When Jimmy and I ran out back and into the scrub desert, we would chase the sun until it settled behind the dry hills of New Mexico. Panting and grabbing our aching sides, we would collapse in the dirt and say, “We ain’t never gonna’ catch up to that war.”

Gasping and sucking in sharp breaths at the stitches stinging our gut, we shared an unspoken sense of relief that it was too far away for us to find. Their were sad women who wandered through the street to buy groceries and go back to houses where we knew some boy’s Papa used to live. Their eyes were empty and they didn’t wash their dresses as much as they used to. Because it wasn’t like the way it had been.

Before he was killed in the war.

We knew the war could do that – kill people.

And the train was coming.

But we didn’t think about all that out in the boondox. There was so much nothin’ out there that we could throw rocks, run up to them and throw them again. We could do that all day long and never hit anything because there was so much wide-open nothin’. Sometimes we’d throw rocks so far that we’d lose sight of town and Jimmy would have to use the sun’s position in the sky to lead us back home.

About the only thing connecting us to the rest of anywhere else was the train tracks. And the telegraph office that sat inside the train station. The telegraph man didn’t have any friends because whenever he came out of his office, folks would close their doors and cross to the other side of the street. Because, just as often as he might have a telegram from somebody coming to visit or somebody sending a little money, their would be those Army telegrams telling us that another Papa was gone.

The telegraph man had friends before the war.

We knew the war could do that – take away a man’s friends.

And the train was coming.

Before Jimmy’s Papa went to war, they’d take me with them on Sunday afternoons when we’d all ride in his Papa’s 1941 Ford V8 four door sedan all the way to Melrose and back. It was a lot fancier than the model T old man Hoover drove in from his farm to deliver eggs. No sir, this car went fifty miles an hour and the engine sounded like a dragon. We’d stick our heads out the window and squint our eyes while the wind blew our hair back. Jimmy moved his hand like an airplane. He understood how things like airplanes worked. But then Jimmy’s Papa went off to war. And the government wouldn’t let us buy as much gasoline as before.

We rode in cars and didn’t ever think there’d be a day when all we could do was look down an empty road.

We knew war could do that – leave us with nothin’ left to do but walk around, run through the scrub and throw rocks that landed nowhere in particular.

And the train was coming.

Jimmy knew all the locomotives and he nearly jumped out of his own skin the day a big black Baldwin came rumblin’ in from yonder.

It was a big ol’ black thing, like a steel horse. You could feel it way before you could hear it. Jimmy and I put our ears to the track.

“About ten miles still,” Jimmy said. And then all we could hear was our breathing and the steel singing in our ears as the big Baldwin loomed around the bend, down there between those hills and along the scrub where we could throw rocks clean into the next day.

We stood up and watched the black smoke rush into the sky and blow back over the locomotive. The ground shook as she came on around, heading somewhere fast.

“81 cars,” Jimmy said. He could count things real fast like that. All I could do was watch the locomotive and those big black wheels spinning behind the blur of steel coupling rods.

Jimmy dug through his pocket and found a penny. He put it on the track and then we stepped back because the train was just about on top of us by then.

The locomotive thundered by. I could see it in Jimmy’s eyes – that ethereal delight at seeing such a behemoth of a machine and knowing, at least a little bit, just how much went into thinking up such a thing an building it. I don’t think I’d ever seen him as happy as he was at that moment. We don’t realize just how important those happy moments are when they come along. That was the last time Jimmy would smile because a train was coming.

We were counting the cars, even though Jimmy already knew there were 81. When we got to seven, the world changed forever.

I don’t remember too much about what happened next except that it felt like the air had been sucked out of the sky and we were underwater. Then I saw Jimmy flying through the air. He landed on his back and let out a big ol’ “OOF!.” His face twisted up from the pain. Me, I was flying through the air with my face towards the ground. I put my arms up to cover my nose when I hit the ground and tumbled.

I stood up and was real dizzy. Jimmy was holding onto his ribs like he was hurt. But we both thought of the same thing at the same time: We ran like hell out into that scrub.

We ran until our sides ached and then we ran some more. We ran until our legs gave out and we collapsed on the ground, wheezing like a couple of run-out horses.

We sat there, looking at the train. Everything had stopped. Cars had spilled off the tracks and laid on their sides in the dirt. The locomotive belched thick black smoke, but it wasn’t goin’ anywhere.

That’s when things got really bad.

The explosions were huge and even though we had run as far as we could, they knocked the air out of our lungs. We sucked at the air like a couple of fish, unable to scream. I looked at Jimmy and what I saw scared me. He couldn’t explain what was happening. All he could do was try to suck in air, just like me.

The train just kept blowin’ up like that, until we couldn’t see it anymore. All we could see was rolling clouds of orange and black swirling up into the sky. The smoke drifted over us and still the explosions kept coming.

We started coughing, so we knew we could breathe. But we didn’t dare stand up. We had a hard enough time just sitting there, feeling the heat of each explosion wash over us while the looming fires tried to suck away all the air.

Then it stopped. All that was left was the crackling of fire and faint yells of men who tried to find something to put them out.

The railroad station, where the telegraph man worked, was gone. The grocery where the sad widows traipsed in dirty dresses was gone. The post office that still brought in a few letters from the Papas at war was a heap of splintered wood and brick.

The town – my home – was gone. All that was left was smoke, the men rushing around like chickens and me and Jimmy sitting there wondering what had happened. And a big ol’ crater where I thought I saw, for just a second, soldiers peeking over its crest. Jimmy knew how things work. I was the one who was real good at pretending things. But I didn’t like what I was pretending now.

“Bombs,” he said.


He turned to me and I could see those wheels turnin’ in his head. “Bombs. It was a trainload of bombs and the fire set them off.”


It was the last thing either of us said for a long time. It wasn’t until dark that we finally stood up and walked back to… a place we used to call home. Our Mamas came running out to us, bawling mad. They hugged us and then slapped us and then hugged us some more. They shoved suitcases into our hands and we piled into neighbors’ cars. Then we all drove off into the night. I don’t remember where. Just away from the lingering smoke and the crater where the war had found my imagination.

The train didn’t carry bombs before the war.

We didn’t know war could do that – find us all the way out here in the middle of nowhere.

And the train wasn’t coming ever again.

©2023 Michael J Lawrence

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