Shelley Glazen tapped her cigarette against a homemade ashtray. It was misshapen and cracked with age, but it had been her first attempt at art, the first time she fell in love with creating something with her own, rickety hands. Now, decades into her hobby, she found joy in teaching others at the community center. At seventy-three, Shelley was proof anyone could take up a skill and make something beautiful. She taught both throwing clay and Beginners' Drawing. “It's not about getting famous on the ticky-tock!” she said on the first day of classes, her voice bouncing on the well-rehearsed speech. “It's about expressing yourself and most of all...having fun!” She knew she was a little silly and foolish, but felt it encouraged the shy artists to break into their deepest desires free of judgment.
She sucked on the filtered end of the Turkish Gold and studied the sketch in front of her. All her classes up to this point had other retired, white-haired gals like herself, but this semester she had a young boy fresh out of high school. A real oddball. A gentle, kind spoken boy...but odd. Shelley felt incredibly old and disconnected whenever she spoke to him about his perspectives or his subject matter.
It was always trains. Whatever the lesson of the day; color theory, shading, angles, whatever, the boy drew trains. Not just any trains. No. These were slinky, bent at the middle like some sort of serpent and instead of wheels they had long, catly appendages and razor fangs popping out of humanoid faces, dripping with crude oil. Sometimes the smoke from the engine parts engulfed people that were never detailed and often shapeless, sexless blobs.
She held the most recent charcoal sketch and turned the stiff paper, squinting at it in an attempt to determine the correct angle. A glow of yellow light shone out of a bulbous nose shone and onto the train tracks. Shelley finished her cigarette and leaned back, holding the paper up to the ceiling fan light, forcing the shading of the image to change and warp as though it were a demonic creature. She had to give marks for the use of sparse color and lighting but marked off for the tracks being in the wrong position. She wasn't sure how to grade the train's structure. Should she judge it on the behavior of cats or the behavior of locomotives?
A new shadow appeared in the doorway of her tiny office, and she lifted the paper to eye her husband, Robert. He plucked idly at an earlobe. “At it again with those damn trains?”
“I just wish I knew what it was about them.”
“Art's an obsession. We can't ask for everything to be explained.” He raised his free hand to show a large glass of brandy and wiggled his tufty, white eyebrows. “How 'bout it? I got the popcorn on the stove and the movie picked.”
Shelley chuckled and slowly detached herself from the art projects and the office. She clicked off the light and took a glass. “You sure know how to woo a girl.”
“Just you wait for the foot rub.”
The movie he'd picked was a semi-recent feature exploring the final days of Van Gogh, all masterfully painted frame by frame in his style. By the end of it, Shelley's breath had caught up behind her nose. She wept open and ugly. Robert pat circled on her back until she was able to settle, and she was glad she could be this way around him and not feel like an idiot.
“I'm sorry, darling,” he said. “I'll pick a better one next week.”
“No,” she said, kissing the hard sandpaper of his cheek. “It was a wonderful movie. Beautiful. The brandy got to me. That's all.”
“That's all?” His eyes narrowed and disappeared behind puffs of skin.
Shelley shook her head. “I could never paint like that. The poor man.”
“You're not supposed to paint like that,” said Robert, wrapping his arms around her. She snuggled deep into him and listened to the vibration of his lungs. “You're supposed to paint like you.”
Inspired, Shelley brought to the community center the red wagon she normally used when walking to Kroger. She filled it with cheap canvas and paints and waited outside the classroom for everyone to arrive. “We're going on a little field trip today to paint outdoors. It's called plein air.”
The weather was perfect and the walk brisk, filling her lungs with a sharp autumn wind that carried the scent of dead leaves and pinion burning in fireplaces of the nearby homes. They only walked as far as the park, where a bend in the running trail led off to a lush, overgrown patch of protected wetlands. She hoped to teach her students what Robert had said to her that previous night. Paint like you. After all, the odd boy of her class wasn't the only one with a unique perspective and perhaps Shelley could show how one piece of landscape could be different for each of them.
“The old masters used to do this all the time,” she informed the class with authority, even though she'd only read about the fact that morning. Truthfully, she didn't even know if she pronounced 'plein air' the correct way. It was very French, and her tongue often felt slow and heavy with other languages. She secretly hoped that the odd boy would be forced further away from the comfort of drawing trains and look to more organic inspirations.
By the time the class was done, Shelley had five pictures of the trail and two of the playground. She considered it a success until she spotted the odd boy's submission. He'd done the trail as well but included a train in the far distance.
At least, she thought with a bit a dash of resignation, it was a real train and not a funny shaped one. She carefully set the paintings into the wagon and began to walk back to the community center. The clacking of the wagon wheels thumped in tandem with her troubled thoughts. Was there something wrong with the boy or was she being an old and judgmental fuddy-duddy? Trains made him happy. Who did it harm?
During their dinner of homemade challah and potato soup, Shelley discussed this with Robert the day's work. He listened, beefy hands folded neatly together, the tufts of his eyebrows shifting thoughtfully like an old dog chasing something in its sleep.
“Perhaps it's his home life? Maybe he wants to get away and can't...the train is him trying to escape. Do the faces look like him?”
“I suppose,” she rubbed her temples, then stood and collected the dishes. It was her turn to clean. Robert had done all the cooking.
That night, Shelley dreamed monstrous, mechanical beasts chasing her. They snatched at her with steaming claws and tore her apart with the fangs folded inside the wide, human mouths. It startled her so terribly, that she couldn't convince herself to fall asleep again. So, she braided her hair and put on her walking clothes. It was nearly four o'clock in the morning and not much traffic on the streets. Still, she kept her flash jacket on and walked purposefully to the only train station in town.
As a girl, Shelley enjoyed taking the train to visit her relations. She loved the clunking, churning sounds, the strangers that passed at the rural stops, the long arching bridges that crossed over the Brazos. The viewing car was her favorite. At night, she'd hunker down into one of the captain's chairs and stare into the night sky, as though she were in a spaceship. She understood the delight in the slowness of a journey by train. She appreciated the nostalgia. She simply couldn't wrap her mind around the boy's added layers of oddness attached to them.
Should she ask and risk embarrassing him or herself? What if he was simply drawing some sort of Pokémon? She frowned and lit a cigarette, cupping the glow in her cold hands. She didn't think an obsession with those little Japanese creatures was hardly any better than one of trains.
At the current hour, none of the trains ran. The station was abandoned, and it had an old world feel to it, as though the platform hadn't been updated since Billy the Kid allegedly stood in the very spot. Shelley stayed by the outdoor ticket booth, smoking, and running her hands over the smooth wooden back of a bench she stood beside. Would the train yard speak to her and explain why some might be overwhelmed by their hulking frames? If architecture was meant to be jazz frozen in time, then what were trains? She waited and waited, but the only answer came from the chirping of predawn birds and the wind rustling the orange-gold trees.
Three tracks away from the platform, she saw the flash of a light and thought for a moment that it might be a night watchman. She hoped that she wasn't standing on the platform illegally. There hadn't been any gates or signposts, but she could never be certain with these types of places.
Shelley finished her cigarette, waiting for the flashlight to come closer but it never did. She brought her jacket closer to her chin, shifting nervously. There were whispers now, frantic and cooing. She stuck a pinkie in her ear and wiggled it, then listened again.
Yes. A singular voice coming from the same direction as the light. I love you. I love you. More than you can know... and a long, drawn-out sigh followed by a laugh. Shelley brought a hand to her flushing cheeks and turned to leave. She hadn't meant to snoop on any love making. She stumbled off the platform and grabbed the railing before she fell. A trashcan toppled over and the voice, Shhh! What was that? crawled through the morning mist as though to snag her by the hair.
Shelley trotted to the end of the lane and paused to catch her breath. She stood under a streetlamp that had already shut off for the day and cupped her hands against the oncoming headlights of an early commuter. There, at the far side of the block, where the back of the train yard began, was a figure. A shapeless lump that reminded her off the people in the odd boy's pictures.
Hands trembling, Shelley went home and made a strong pot of coffee. She knew that she had no reason to be scared, all that bubbling in her nerves was left over from her nightmare. She had always been scared of the dark, deep down, although she never admitted it to herself. In retrospect, what Shelley heard and witnessed were two unremarkable moments wedged together in her frightened mind.
Robert woke at the normal hour, and she told him all about her early morning walk. He fixed his paisley bathrobe, uncomfortable by the notion of her out on her own. He said as much.
“I'm just trying to figure out why the trains,” Shelley answered in a small, unsure tone.
“Well,” Robert cupped his thick fingers around a red coffee mug. “Well...I'll come with you. Tomorrow.”
“I couldn't ask you –” began Shelley.
“Sounds like fun. I'll nap in the afternoon.” He wiggled his eyebrows like it were an invitation for something more.
The following morning, Robert woke with Shelley. He packed a thermos of coffee into his jacket pocket and folded the blanket they used when they went to concerts together and sat in the grass. Shelley grinned, her lungs fluttered, and it felt like a date.
She took him to the exact spot when she first heard the sounds. They waited and when the minutes passed without any sign of another person or a flashing light, Robert reached for her hand and squeezed her fingers. “Show me where you saw them.”
Shelley pointed into the third row of trains and Robert led her gently from the platform. They stumbled over the big chunks of gravel and the old metal lips of the tracks. She leaned into him, giggling as he nuzzled the tender place behind her ear. He asked, in a hushed tone, “Is this what you heard?” then moaned soft and slow.
“No.” her smile was sly, and she gripped his fleshy jaw. “Like this. I love you. I love you. I love you.”
They sank down onto their creaking knees and Robert fumbled with the blanket. He spread it out and unbuttoned his shirt. “We'll get busted.”
“Oh, no!” Shelley replied with a dramatic gasp. She laid down and shimmied free from her pants. “Wait. I got a cramp.”
Robert moved his hand over her hip, massaging. “Like this?”
“Yes...” Shelley rolled her head to the side, and he kissed her neck. He shifted to an odd angle to alleviate the pressure off his bad knees and kissed with vigor when she gasped. She pushed him off and whispered, “Hang on.”
She directed his head to a dark space underneath one of the freights. There were pink candles burnt down to the stubs and little strips of paper singed at the edges. Robert shuffled off Shelley and reached for one of the shriveled bits. He held it into the light of a naked bulb hanging off a nearby pole. He squinted. “Some kinda jumbo. Fake Latin...”
“That's mine,” a voice behind them quivered.
Shelley shrieked and struggled to crawl away, holding onto her pants with one hand. She tried to pull them over her knees but dropped them in her panic. Robert stumbled to his feet and spread his arms to block Shelley from view. “Who are you? What do you want?”
“This is my safe space,” said the shape coming slow out of the shadows. “This is our spot and you ruined it.”
“We're sorry,” said Shelley, standing at last. Her numb fingers slipped around the button of her pants. She recognized the voice. The odd boy from class. “We just were –”
“We're married,” said Robert stiffly. “We're allowed to kiss.”
“This is my spot,” he said again. He placed a thin hand onto the side of the freight. “Poor boy is leaking. They put him out of commission. He just needs a little love, and you ruined it.”
“Sure, sure,” said Robert. “We meant nothing by it.” Shelley could tell he was uncomfortable. It was the same too easy, too wispy tone he used when playing a bad hand at bridge.
“He needs special care. You see? He isn't thriving.” The boy's lamp-like eyes turned to Shelley. “But you can feel it, can't you? That's why you were drawn to him. Yesterday. Today. He's got a way with words.”
“He...he does?” Shelley asked, eyeing the muscles on Robert's back tighten. “Is he who you draw?”
“Sometimes,” said the boy, in a cool, detached way. “Sometimes it's our children.”
“Oh. I see,” she said. The human faces in the trains were beginning to make since.
“He needs to be compete again.”
“Well, I'm sure that there are men who know how to fix this sort of thing,” Robert said, puffing out his chest. The odd boy nodded and then he brought a hidden shovel into his hands. He swung it against the side of Robert's head. Then, before Shelley could cry out for help, the shovel came to her.
When she regained consciousness, her hands shuffled over old wood. Splinters dug into the tips of her fingers. Blood crusted her nose, but she could still catch the scent of melting wax and dust. Although she could feel the space around her, she couldn't feel herself move. It was like quenching a thirst without drinking water. Shelley's temples throbbed and she cautiously opened her watering eyes. The odd boy was standing in front of her. He held a riveter, muttering under his breath and bringing the sharp nose of the tool in and out from her field of vision.
“What are you doing?” Shelley groaned.
“I'm finishing my art,” said the boy not looking at her. “I'm making him complete.”
Her eyes flickered to the opposite end of the car. There was Robert, riveted into the side of the car. He wasn't a man. The clothes were gone. It was only his face against the soft wood and his tongue rolled out like an animal. His skin was stretched, stapled into the sides of the freight.
“No!” cried Shelley. “No!”
“Shhh,” said the odd boy. Shutting her mouth with the hard staples of iron. Her teeth broke and she accidentally swallowed bits of bone. “You're part of us now. Part of him. This is good. I'll show you.”
He set down the tool and wiped the sweat off his brow with the tattered end of his shirt. He picked up his backpack and lit a fresh pink candle. Inhaling deeply, he took out his pencil and drawing pad. Then, he sat beside the candle and began drawing them. His hand moved fast across the white paper, smudging the ink with the side of his fist. “It's beautiful. It's exactly how you showed me. Aren't you proud?”
He turned to show the sketch to Shelley. She saw herself, flayed out like a newly caught fish, sinking into the sharp shadows cast by the candle. Her hair sinking into the grain of the wood. Her mouth buttoned shut. She was only a face into the side of the train, and it was beautiful. It was his best work yet.