Tommy fidgeted in his chair at the dinner table. He couldn’t keep still as the thoughts, the implications, the ideas bounced madly through his brain like pinballs. He stared outside at the darkening sky which was on fire with brilliant reds and oranges, waiting until the last rays of sunshine finally dipped below the horizon.
Tommy already had his backpack ready.
“Did you have a good birthday, son?” Tommy’s mother asked from the kitchen. Tommy wiggled his foot back and forth as he continued to stare out the sliding back door. He made no indication he’d heard her as his eyes remained distant and fixed on far away thoughts. “Did you have a good birthday, Tommy?” His mom asked a little louder. Tommy snapped into reality.
“Yeah. It was good,” he provided in great detail.
“Did you have fun with your friends?” A wave of frustration and loneliness crashed over Tommy. He could still hear his conversation with Sam. He wished he hadn’t been so sensitive, but Sam’s words had struck a nerve. It wasn’t his fault that Sam had changed. Tommy had always been Tommy. Somewhere along the way, being Tommy meant he didn’t fit in.
“At first, I was against letting a fourteen-year-old play paintball. I was afraid you’d get hurt, but you didn’t come home with any paint on your clothes. Were you that good that you didn’t even get hit?” She asked with a hint of sarcasm.
“Well, I’m proud of you. Are you done with your food?” She asked as she moved out of the kitchen and towards Tommy. He still had not looked away from the sun setting.
“Sure. When’s ice cream?”
“As soon as your grandpa gets here.”
Tommy sat upright and looked at his mom for the first time all evening.
“Grandpa’s coming over?”
“He is. He should be on his way,” his mom responded as she moved his half-eaten plate to the sink. A spark of excitement kindled in Tommy’s chest.
“I’m spending the night at Sam’s,” he lied. His plan was to tell his parents he was going to Sam’s house and along the way stop by in the wooded area where he’d discovered the piece of evidence. But, he had to wait until dark or his parents might notice him heading down the street in the wrong direction.
“Yeah. We decided during paintball.” Tommy watched his mother’s face and could see relief stretch across her brow.
“Good, son. I was a little worried you two weren’t friends anymore.” Tommy could still hear Sam’s words—keep pretending that we’ll be best buds again—or some version of Sam’s arrogance that kept running through his head.
“We’re tight. Don’t worry so much,” he deflected. “But, when does Gramps getting here?”
“Soon. You seem extra excited about it?” Tommy sat back down and fumbled for a quick answer.
“Yeah. I enjoy Grandpa’s stories and I wanted to ask him about some of them.”
“You like Grandpa’s stories?” His mom asked disbelievingly.
“Love them!” It wasn’t a total lie. Generally, he did like to listen to his grandpa’s stories, though Grandpa tended to say some of them over and over again. Tommy’s grandpa suffered from early onset dementia. He wasn’t to the point where he wasn’t able to remember their names or was putting his keys in the freezer, but sometimes he said things that didn’t make sense. Lately, Tommy tried to avoid hanging out with his grandpa when he came over because of how weird some of his statements were. Sometimes, his grandpa would even think he was talking to one of his friends from when he was younger—a boy named Roger who evidently liked to hang out with him.
The dementia kind of made Tommy sad. When he was younger, he and his grandpa used to play with model trains together. It was their little hobby. Grandpa would glue the pieces and explain the history behind each model. It was in those early days that Tommy’s love for train lore began. He remembered how as a kid he’d race to the local library on a Saturday morning just so he could grab another book about trains and return the one he’d checked out the previous weekend. Tommy wanted to be prepared for when the next time his grandpa came over with a new model. He wanted to impress his grandpa, and make the old man’s mustache bounce up and down with smiles.
But, then Tommy read about The Daylight. He read about Thomas Rice. At first, he thought it was a typo—a misprint. There was no way his family name was a part of history. The more he read, though, the more his excitement died away and was replaced with bitter disappointment and sadness. Thomas Rice was famous for his mistakes—not his triumphs.
November 2, 1941.
The date made a chill run up and down Tommy’s back despite the heat that had settled onto his skin. That date was the day The Daylight, a GS-4 Steam Locomotive, derailed and resulted in the deaths of everyone on board after the train hurtled off of the Pit River Bridge. The derailing of the passenger train was one of the most devastating train wrecks in the last one hundred years.
Because Thomas Rice—whom Tommy was named after—was the youngest Engineer in the United States and in charge when the train crashed, his inexperience was to blame and his reputation was forever entwined with the deaths of over a hundred souls. Truly, Tommy didn’t know what he could do, but he had to do something to find out what really happened on Pit River Bridge. Surely, there had been a malfunction. Perhaps the boiler had stopped letting off steam and imploded. Or maybe a coupling detached on one of the lead cars and caused the rest to derail. There was no way it was his family’s fault. It was this belief that motivated Tommy to keep going, to keep hunting, to keep searching
When Tommy brought this information to his grandpa the following week, he remembered the way his grandpa’s face fell. The smile faded from beneath his white mustache as his lips formed a hard line. His grandpa sat Tommy down and explained to Tommy what happened—or at the least what he believed happened—that it wasn’t his great-grandfather’s fault. For years, Tommy believed his grandpa’s version. But, how could Tommy deny the legacy that was recorded in history? How could he argue the evidence in the history books? It made Tommy feel uncomfortable—like he was caught between believing his grandpa and believing the truth.
For a while, Tommy tried to set the issue aside. He tried to ignore it. But, then one of the students in his class—a kid named Adam Grossman—found out. Immediately, Tommy became an object of ridicule and teasing. Kids made fun of him because of his great-grandfather—because of his family legacy. Humiliated, Tommy tried to defend himself and his family name, but he didn’t have any evidence other than the word of his grandfather. His grandpa’s word wasn’t enough, though.
After a few days, the rest of the class forgot about Tommy’s dark family history, though Adam didn’t. For a whole year, Tommy received the random verbal assault from him. The only person to stick up for Tommy was Sam, for which Tommy was grateful. At the end of the year, Adam moved away and Tommy was left in peace. But, the seed had already been sown. He was in a battle of legacies, now. Did he trust his grandpa or did he trust history?
There was only one thing Tommy could do: he had to find out for himself. For nearly two years, Tommy had been on a quest—a hunt—for the truth. Every opportunity he had, he was at the public library browsing through old articles, reading book upon book, and hunting down answers. In that time, he’d gone to his grandpa less and less. As the dementia ate away at his memories, those stories just made him feel uncomfortable. But, maybe Tommy could talk to him about The Daylight and see if there were any clues he could get out of him before he went off searching for more evidence in the woods. Tommy knew he’d only have ten or so minutes to look, so any new information would help.
“Where’s the birthday boy?” A voice boomed from the living room as Tommy heard the front door open and close with a whine.
Tommy rose to his feet. It was time to have the next clue.