Tommy’s flashlight illuminated the path in front of him as he approached the edge of the woods. The darkness pressed in upon him from all sides and the humidity clung to his skin like cobwebs. His heart pounded in his ears and sticky sweat blazed a path down his spine.
Tommy hesitated a split second as he glanced behind him. The sound of chirping echoed with his heart pounding in his ears. Nobody knew he was here. Tommy felt a little guilty about the lie he had told his parents, but if he found what he was looking for, then it would all be worth it in the end. His excitement fluttered in his stomach. What if he found another piece of the train? What if he found the entire Engine!?
Tommy lingered on the thought of finally finding the long-lost train for a moment and let the anticipation build before he readjusted his backpack and headed towards the edge of the woods. Somewhere, an owl hooted as if commenting on the frail boy walking towards woods thick with darkness. As Tommy walked, he hardened his nerves and convinced himself that he was doing the right thing. There was no way he could wait until morning to find the rest of The Daylight. It was now or never.
“Where do you think you’re going?” A voice cut through the night noises and caused Tommy’s heart to leap to his throat. He spun around and raised the flashlight. The beam cut across the gloom and struck Sam in the face. He covered his eyes as a scowl crossed his lips. “Yo! Cut it out.” Tommy’s confusion melted into annoyance.
“Why are you here?” He asked. Tommy moved the beam to Sam’s feet.
“Because I know you too well,” Sam said as he lowered his hands.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“That I figured you’d show up in pitch black darkness to find your greatest fantasy,” he said sarcastically. Tommy wasn’t impressed.
“Go home, Sam. I do this alone.”
“Right, He-Man. And let you get eaten by bears? No thanks.”
“I can take care of myself,” Tommy replied though he knew that against a bear he was dead meat. “Besides—whatever happened to you telling me to stop pretending we’ll be best buds in the morning?” Tommy meant for the remark to be a jab, but still felt the pain tremble through him. For a second, Sam was silent.
“Well, it’s still your birthday.”
“Right. And the best present you can give me is you going home to your new friends.”
“No can do, amigo. Besides, I’m a little curious, too. You were right about the location of the Engine, and I kinda want to find the rest of it.” Tommy’s eyes narrowed. He couldn’t tell if Sam was lying or not.
“You got a flashlight?” Sam clicked one on just beneath his chin. “Good. Follow me,” he said as he turned with a flourish.
Tommy walked many paces ahead of Sam. His footsteps were muffled. The beam from his flashlight bounced with each step. He didn’t dare look backwards at Sam to make sure he was following. Instead, he focused on the clues he’d gathered so far as his flashlight traced the trees in front of him and scurried across the ground in search of obstacles.
Tommy reflected on the conversation he’d had with his grandpa. His grandfather’s words and sincerity rang in his head. He believed that Thomas James Rice had been an honest man, one who could not have been responsible for the train wreck and the subsequent loss of over a hundred lives. Tommy had to prove to his grandpa that this was true, and the only way he could do it was by finding the wreckage as soon as possible.
But, what was he hoping to find? Tommy hoped to find the entire Engine. The Engine would have been the first car to derail, dragging down the rest of The Daylight off the tracks as it plummeted off of Pit River Bridge. Tommy had done enough reading to know that a shattered axle, or a destroyed break, or any number of flaws in The Daylight could easily be the reason why this happened. If Tommy could at least find the Engine tonight, then he could come back out in the morning and clear his great grandfather’s name for good.
Before long, the flashlight bounced off of his previous find. Tommy had leaned it up against a tree trunk to make it easier to see. The light rebounded off of the glass despite it being dirty and tarnished. He bent down and picked it up, examining it to make sure it was indeed a headlamp. Without a doubt, it matched the images he’d seen in the books.
“Do you think it belonged to another train?” Sam asked as he drew up next to Tommy. Tommy shook his head as annoyance soaked his tongue.
“Because there’s many of those around here, right?”
“Just a thought, Tommy. No need to be rude,” Sam said softly. Tommy ignored him.
“The Engine is close. Look for anything that gleams or is sticking out at an odd angle,” he offered as his beam arched through the foliage. Tommy peered through the night which had settled in like soot. The trees were thick, here, and he was sure behind any one of the clumps of entwined canopies was where the Engine was hiding. Maybe it was even on the other side of the massive hill just in front of him. His beam roamed through the woods, pausing as he planned how to get into the tangled trees.
A twig snapped somewhere behind him. Tommy and Sam whipped their flashlights around. Tommy’s heart beat madly in his chest.
“What was that?” Sam asked. Tommy could hear the edge of fear in his voice.
“I don’t know. An animal?” Nothing stirred except the wind. Chills ran up and down Tommy’s spine as goosebumps broke out on his skin.
He should have waited until morning.
A crunching noise caused Tommy to spin his gaze around. The trees swayed in the wind and his flashlight was smothered by the thick undergrowth as it moved. His eyes saw life in the trees. He swallowed a lump which had formed in his throat.
“Maybe being out this late without telling anyone where he was wasn’t such a good idea,” he said as his hands shook. He had been too hasty. “Let’s go home and come back tomorrow.”
“Yeah. Good idea.” Tommy turned around and started to retrace his steps.
A low, rolling sound filled the woods. The two boys froze as fear rooted them in place.
“What was that!?”
Tommy’s forehead creased together in confusion. The noise sounded familiar to Tommy, but he didn’t understand what in the woods could be making the sound. He was at least a mile from the closest neighborhood. A sudden hiss of escaping air made both of them jump.
“I don’t like this, Tommy. We need to go,” Sam said persistently.
Suddenly, a blinding light broke through the trees. The sudden appearance of the brilliant white glow made them shield their eyes. The air grew sickly warm as the light heated up the night. For a second, Tommy thought it was a searchlight. It was so bright it burned into his corneas until spots danced in front of his vision.
Nothing stirred. Only the light accompanied him in the night. Its beam cut through the darkness and exposed the world around him. Tommy still could not see where it was coming from.
“Is anybody there?”
“Maybe it’s the cops,” Sam whispered. Tommy felt a spike of dread stab into him. “We know we’re not supposed to be out here, but we got lost. If you can just show us the way out of here, we’ll just leave,” Sam offered.
For a handful of seconds, there was no response.
A noise erupted throughout the woods. The noise shook Tommy to the core and he flinched as the trees around him quivered. His mind churned as he recognized the sound. It was impossible. It couldn’t be. Especially not this deep in the woods. No, he was probably so hyped up on cake and soda that his mind was playing tricks on him.
“Sam?” Tommy’s mouth was dry and the word barely came out.
A tree branch cracked like gunfire.
Both boys whipped around and stumbled headlong in the opposite direction of the ambient light. Tommy didn’t have time think as regret and terror washed over him. Desperation moved his legs, but his feet felt like they were weighed down with cement. The train began to move forward, towards them, carving out a path through hapless undergrowth. Trees were swept aside like they were blades of grass. Stones turned over in the wake of the colossal machine.
The train horn ripped through the night like an animal’s hungry howl.
Tommy stumbled as a root snagged his foot. Pain shot through his hands and radiated up to his elbows as his arms took the brunt of the fall. Another ear-splitting horn slammed into him. Tommy’s throat tightened as he glanced back over his shoulder at the widening beam of light.
“Get up!” Sam shouted as he pulled Tommy to his feet like he was a bundle of twigs. Tommy pushed Sam forward and the two of them continued to flee. Tommy couldn’t breathe. Branches slashed at him in the dark. Anxiety gripped his chest and smothered his heart. A tree fell with a deafening crash. He felt the shudder of its weight roll through the ground and into his legs as a branch stabbed into his shoulder. Fiery pain tumbled from his lips and hot, sticky blood seeped down his arm.
“Over there!” Sam shouted as he pointed. Tommy couldn’t see what he was pointing at, but followed none the less. The chug, chug, chug sound of the train was thunderous in his ears. He could feel the steam on his skin like sticky cobwebs.
“We gotta go up!” Sam shouted over the cacophony. Tommy watched as he scrambled up a boulder. Before going too high, Sam turned around and extended his arm. “Take my hand!” Tommy froze. The well of anxiety was overflowing in his chest. His eyes darted to his left, but the undergrowth was a dense fabric. “Tommy! Come on!” Sam begged. Tommy stared upward at the massive boulder, knowing that it was his only escape. Beads of sweat stung his eyes, as Tommy whipped his body around, searching for another route.
But it was too late. The smell of burning coal filled his nostrils as thick steam curled around him. The train loomed in front of him like a hungry lion. Tommy held his hands in front of his face and cried into the night as the light enveloped him.