Impasse – Chapter Eleven
Detective Farva found his stride over the wooden stringers, the light in his hands directed forward into the falling snow. He alternated the trajectory of the beam between the steps ahead and those still far in the distance, looking for anything out of the ordinary. It wasn’t long before the strobing police lights disappeared out of his peripheral vision.
The wind tugged at him, sucking the warmth out of his body even through the waxed canvas of the jacket. Like a gash cutting the town in two, the rails continued, fenced off on either side, with bits of old infrastructure and family-run businesses beyond the chain links. Signs protruded from the ground, final warnings for the train operators to slow before entering the city limits and encountering the crossings. Taking a moment, Farva shined the light back, examining the reflective surfaces with markings he couldn’t immediately decipher. I have to keep going, even if this doesn’t make sense. Before the chief or the others find out I’m not inside the train.
The detective’s free hand worked its way into his pants pocket, fishing around for the folded cell phone. The screen inside lit up and offered him the time – 3:13 A.M. I should call now. Before it’s too late. In case something happens. Nothing will happen. I’m solving this. But… she needs to know.
Farva’s eyes darted back and forth between the phone’s keypad and the void of darkness at the furthest reaches of the beam. He could barely feel the buttons with the cold skin of his thumb, but he managed to dial the number nonetheless, the one belonging to the landline back home.
The ring reverberated in his ear, finally cutting off and replaying the message he himself had recorded, way back when he and Jess had moved in together. You’ve reached the home of Robert and —her voice cut in, simply to speak her name— Jess Farva. Say what you want to say after the beep.
He found his breath as the tone played in his ear. “Babe, I know you can hear this, but please… don’t pick up. Please let me say what I need to say. I… wasn’t at home tonight, not because… of the bar, or work, or any of that. All I can say is… I’ve messed up. You’re a smart woman. Don’t… make me say it. And… it wasn’t my first time, either. But… I love you, I love you still. Nothing will change that. And that’s why… I can’t put you in this position. I think…“ Beep.
Damn it. He yanked the phone from his ear and watched the call end, the answering machine having accepted as much as it would allow. His finger shook while pressing the redial button. The phone rang, offering him time to find the next words, but the time in his own mind was cut short.
“Robert,” Jess answered first.
“Don’t do this to me, Jess.”
“I won’t say anymore,” she said softly. “Let it out, and I will listen.”
Farva shook his head, blinking into the darkness, his footsteps slowing across the ground, glowing slick. “It was one night, at the bar. I got too drunk. I ended up with another woman, in the car. And it could have, it should have stopped there. I should have told you. That’s about the time we brought up again… thoughts about starting a family. You started talking about a family. I’m sorry that I didn’t tell you then. You remember when my schedule changed not long after?”
“I put in a request to have my schedule changed. So… so I could avoid those talks, avoid your advances. If… I had caught something, I didn’t want to give it to you. If I went to the clinic to get tested… it would have gotten to you. You know how word travels in this town.
I’ve… paid for other women since then, telling myself it didn’t count. That using protection with them would be enough to keep me, keep them safe. They don’t stay in town for long, those sorts. But… I think I’ve messed up this time. Slept with someone who gave me something worse. And there’s… there’s only so long I can go on lying to you, avoiding you…”
“Robert…” the voice cracked, eaten away at by the poor signal. “I… there’s… no one else…”
Farva pulled the phone away from his ear and glanced at the signal bars on the screen, wavering between little and none. He sucked in a quick breath and shoved the speaker back to his ear, feet planted in place. “Listen. Listen, please. I want to fix this. But I don’t know if—“
The signal went dead, the screen showing off the ending call before the pixels on the screen hid themselves away. The detective’s bare hands could barely move in the cold, one on the flashlight and the other phone. Shoving the device back in his pocket, he rubbed at his knuckles the best he could, attempting to find any last signs of circulation. The beam of light still glowed outward, tracing the parallel tracks. To his rear was only blackness, the final stretches of the city limits.
There’s no turning back now. What am I going to find out here? I’ve come this far, turning back would make no sense. What am I saying? How long does this rail go? Damn, it’s so cold.
The detective’s feet began to act before his mind could make a decision. Though slippery, he planted his boots on the wooden stringers, one after another, the beam of the flashlight bobbing in his hand. The flakes of snow streaked across his line of sight, gathered on his shoulders and hair, and found their way into his collar to melt and trickle down his neck.
Farva’s hands shook, each taking turns in the cold to hold the heavy light while the other hid away in his jacket pocket. A low cry sounded out from the dark. For the first time since setting out on the tracks, he allowed the beam to stray from the metal rails and find the edges of the berm. The dry grass left over from the previous seasons had all but been matted down by the winter weather, leaving only a few slender, bent stalks to poke out from the otherwise barren ground. Thick metal stakes held rough stretches of wire fences bordering county land or property owned by those who despised the thought of neighbors and the decencies required with the sort.
Another cry, high-pitched and tormented, whispered out from beyond the reach of the light. Farva jerked back and pointed himself to the opposite side of the tracks, imagining finding the glowing eyes of a coyote or a mountain lion, only to find more of the same desiccated wild. The rocks under his heel shifted and settled, causing his legs to tense. In the stillness, he felt the skin all over his body tingle in the cold, the wind sucking away what little energy he had left. The cry echoed through the night once more, just near enough in the darkness.
Gripping tight on the flashlight, Farva picked up the pace, praying that his body could continue despite the cold and fatigue, able to reach the sound in the distance. The beam bobbed up and down and the tracks continued, the pattern of rocks and wooden stringers and perfectly straight rails repeated over and over endlessly.
The cry came once again, louder, longer, nearer. In the weak stretches of the beam there laid a hump in the center of the rails, shifting, crying, and as he moved closer, there was a low shushing heard between the intermittent cries of an infant.
“Hello?” Farva called out, rushing forward, the beam held steady as he could. “Do you need help? Are you from the train? I can help you.”
The detective hobbled over the tracks and attempted to round the figure hunched there in the middle, the light finding the blanket-draped woman, decorated with melting snowflakes, codding a small child in her arms. The woman’s eyes traveled up past her bangs, her face identical to the woman who was asleep back in the detective’s home. “Jess? No, you can’t be here. You’re… she’s…”
The ground shifted under Farva’s feet. Down far off in the distance, the horn of a train sounded out in a low, long blast. He dropped the flashlight lightly and jumped for the woman and her child. “You need to get off the tracks, there’s something coming. This… this isn’t safe. You’ll be hit, killed.”
Despite his words and his yanking against the woman’s blanket and her clothes and her arm, her body didn’t move, nor did her eyes shift, her grasp on the bundle of a child tight and unyielding. The light of the train cut through the night and the falling snow. Its whistle blew. Like a ghastly face, it tore through the night screaming and offering no sign of stopping. His cold fingers failing, Farva fell back, his grasp leaving the woman on the tracks.
The engine roared and the countless wheels clacked and whined and the gravel rumbled and the wind tore at his hair and clothes. It was only a matter of seconds before it was all over, the sounds of the train absent from the air completely, not even a sign that it had been there ever. Farva stumbled and reached for the light, still aglow, and pointed it to where the woman had been, his breath imprisoned in his chest. But nothing remained, as if she were never there to begin with.
“Hello? Is someone there?” The voice carried on the low wind from somewhere down the track. “I saw a light. Hello?”
The detective found his footing and shined the light further down the tracks, his ear to the wind to attempt to catch the voice again.
“We’re this way! Stranded! Can you hear us?”
Farva’s eyes readjusted to the dark after the blinding light of the train. The flashlight held in his nearly frozen hand continued to shine along the rail, his feet crunching over the rocky edge of the tracks. The beam finally came to land upon a figure in the dark, then two. Blinded by the light, those in the beam remained still, whispering among each other.
The detective continued to march forward, eyes locked to the first figure. He shined the light in the man’s face who cowered from the brightness and stumbled back. He scanned further, finding a group of others, cowered and huddled together in a group further down the berm, several blankets shared unequally among them. “Is he here to help us? Why isn’t he answering?”
Farva reached his hand up, finding the texture of the first man’s clothing. “What are you doing out here?”
“I should be asking you the same question,” the man said lowly, arms held tightly to his chest.
“I’m… with the police force… but…”
“Oh thank god.”
“But…” Farva bit his lip and pulled the phone from his pocket. It displayed a desperate flashing line in the corner of the screen, constantly seeking out a signal. “I’m not supposed to be out here…”
“What’s that supposed to mean, buddy? None of us, either.”
“The conductor woke us up in the middle of the night and had us evacuate, then he took off without us. We’ve been in the cold nearly an hour.”
“We’ve got kids here!”
“Some went off already, the other way. You’re saying we’re within walking distance of a proper town?”
Farva hunched over, his body cold. “I… don’t know how long I’ve been walking. It’s… too cold.”
“We’re screwed out here!”
“We’ll just wait for the morning.”
“The snow is getting worse.”
The detective breathed heavily, the flashlight just barely in his grasp. Tugging on his collar, he turned back just enough to look in the direction he had come. The bright high beams of the oncoming vehicle lit up either side of the tracks. The heavy crunching of tires came next, stopping as their lights met with the group of people. “Farva!” the chief called as he shoved the door open.
“Schultz…” The detective failed to force himself up, the breath cold in his chest. The men from the group rushed forward, their voices bombarding the officer.
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