They were halfway down the next sleeper car but his brain was still in Joey’s room, turning the thought over and over.
Jump off the train.
Jump off the train.
Jump OFF the TRAIN.
Into a RIVER.
We are about to jump off a train through a gorge into a river.
Vinnie’s brain woke up and raced to catch up with them, speeding through the halls and crashing back into his head. His body was following Maggie down the hall like a sleepwalker, and when he finally caught up to what was happening he stopped, clutching the wall.
Maggie glanced at a small wrist watch tucked under her black sleeve before coming back for him. She took him by the upper arm and pulled him toward the back.
“Look. I get it. You’re freaking out,” she hissed at him. “But the Montana is coming. We’ve got less than fifteen minutes to get the package, get to the back of the train, get set up, get on top of the train, and be ready to go. So you can freak out all you want, but I need you to freak out in motion.”
Still dazed, Vinnie allowed himself to get pulled along for a few feet before wrestling his arm out of her grip.
“This is crazy. Listen to yourself. You’re talking about jumping off a train into a river.”
“Keep your voice down,” she said. Her eyes darted to the rooms closest and she closed the gap between them. This close he could still see the fat lip and black eye she had, buried under layers of smooth make up. “This is what I do. I’m the spirit. In, out, never seen or noticed.”
“Well, it’s not what I do,” he shot back, trying to keep his voice to a stage whisper. “I’ve never done anything like this before! I…I…I don’t even like roller coasters!”
Maggie narrowed her eyes. “This is your best way off the train. You get off with the passengers, you’ll be spotted and burned. We miss the river, there is another way off, but if you don’t like the jump you’re going to hate that. You wanted to be a famous con? This is the way you keep doing it.”
With that she walked off down the train, leaving him. Slowly, he realized she was giving him a choice.
Jump, or burn.
He jogged to catch up with her and nearly had to stay jogging, she was walking so fast. By the time they had gotten to the safe car, Hannah and Duane were waiting. Vinnie had never seen such a place, although he had figured out there must have been a car like this on nearly every train. It was like someone had moved the deposit box room from a bank onto a train. Dozens of little boxes glittered around the walls, all untouched. Bigger boxes lined the bottom. Given the size of the bag sitting on the table in the middle, the rhodium must have come from at least one of those boxes, but none of them looked disturbed.
Maggie examined the black bag and then looked up at Duane. “Good?”
Duane nodded. “Frosty.”
Hannah ignored Maggie like she really was a spirit. She reached out to Vinnie and gave his gloved hand a squeeze.
“You can do this.”
“Time to fly,” Maggie said, heading for the back of the car with the bag.
Vinnie gave Hannah and Duane one last look. A look that he hoped they were able to read. A look that said please don’t let this crazy woman take me off this train.
They must have known, because their faces were easy to read, too.
If there was another way…
There was only one more car behind the safe car. The caboose. A mostly empty car with only a few boxes and a couple of rats scurrying away from the light.
“Shouldn’t there be security back here or something?” Vinnie asked, pretending his voice wasn’t water.
“Maybe back in the old-timey western days when trains were barely faster than a horse,” Maggie said. She was down toward the back of the car, examining a couple of the boxes. After a second she darted forward, moving a box away and revealing a large black canvas backpack. She pulled something from the front of the bag and tried to hand it to Vinnie.
Panic had turned to fear. And fear had turned to skin-crawling, dry mouthed terror. Vinnie realized he was beyond functioning. His limbs wouldn’t move. He couldn’t speak. He could barely think. Except about what they were about to do.
Maggie stared at him for a few seconds, holding whatever it was she had in her hand out to him. She lowered her arm, and Vinnie braced himself, waiting for more spunky logic and straight threats to get him to move.
Instead, she took out her tin ear. It took a few seconds to build up to the motion, but Vinnie managed to take his out, too. He handed it to her, and she slid both into a pocket at the side of the backpack. When she looked at him again, her face was different. Softer.
“Let’s start with your breath, okay? You’ve been holding it. You’re holding it right now. Breathe. Force yourself to breathe. Not too fast…good, just like that, just keep doing that. Unclench your fists. Just let the hands hang loose. Now, find a place where you were happy. You don’t have to tell me that place. Just find it. Picture it. Be in that place.”
If he had time, he might have been able to think of something happier. More appropriate. But he went with the first thing that came to his mind: Taking the train away from home. Dad wouldn’t know for another half a day and wouldn’t have a way to contact him for weeks. The train was taking him west, to his new life, an acceptance letter and a dorm. The train was taking him to his new life. That life wouldn’t actually pan out, but in that moment he hadn’t known it. At that moment, every door had been thrown wide open.
He looked at her, and she smiled at him. The first time he had seen her smile.
“Around eighty percent.”
“Hold onto that moment. It’s going to be hard, but that’s good. If you work on holding onto that moment, you won’t notice the other stuff.”
The thing she had been trying to hand to him was a harness. She helped him get into it, strapping it across his body this way and that until he felt like he’d been caught up in a net.
“We’re going to jump tandem. We’ll hook together once we’re up top. The wind is going to try to push you, so stay low. It’s going to be loud up there, like when we were on the side of the train. We won’t be able to hear each other, but we shouldn’t have to do much talking anyway. I’ll get us hooked together. The only thing you need to do is jump with me. I’ll squeeze your hand when it’s time. That’s it. I’ll take care of everything else, got it?”
Vinnie only nodded, trying to hold on to his happy moment.
Maggie moved quickly after that. Not in a rushed way, there was no panic. Instead, she moved the way people do when they’ve done a thing so many times it has become muscle memory, and they are only living in the flow. She strapped the bag of precious metals to her front, and then strapped her own harness around her. The backpack clipped into the harness, and she pulled and tugged at everything to make sure nothing was loose. Each moment was so fluid. Almost too fast. Just practice, Vinnie supposed. With a final glance at her wristwatch, she nodded.
“Right on time. Ready?”
They went to the very back of the car. She gave him a last look before throwing open the door.
Without the sound dampening walls the roar of the train was monstrous, attacking through his feet and ears. The wind rushed past them as they stepped out to the rear of the train. She had been right, he couldn’t hear a thing besides the desert howling as it fell away from them. There was a half-moon in the sky above them, providing enough light for Vinnie to find the ladder next to the door. He waited for Maggie to go up, but she shook her head and pointed. Him first. He didn’t like it, but he understood: if she went up, there was a strong possibility he would just stay down here, waiting at the back of the train until it pulled into the Jewel.
Picturing the other train ride, the one where there were many possibilities instead of just one involving jumping, he began to climb. He was grateful for the gloves, wondering how cold the metal rungs must have been out here. And then his head got over the side of the train and he was almost blown off, barely holding onto the rung by his fingers.
Sunny train, calm train, going to college train, leaving home train
He crawled on top and stayed low, just as she said. There didn’t seem to be another way, anyway, unless he wanted to get off the train by just blowing away into the desert. It was hard to look forward, into the rushing air, but he managed a quick glance ahead. The train moving into the darkness. Somewhere up there, somewhere close, was the gorge.
Leaving home train, new life train, on top of a train, no, IN a train, warm, ready for a new life, NOT ready to jump, no, no, no
Maggie was next to him. He missed her climbing up and over. One second she wasn’t there, then she was. She had put on a pair of something that looked like glasses and goggles crossed, and was looking ahead. He could see her eyes scanning, following the train. Then she nodded, and gestured for him to come be in front of her.
Again, she moved with such efficiency getting him hooked up to her it almost felt unreal. Of course everything would feel unreal, though. He was on top of a train getting ready-
In a train, I’m in a train, I’m watching the plains go by, tall grasses and corn and no river, definitely not a river, this train doesn’t go over a river at all, ever, nope, nope, nope
He could see the bridge now. The front of the train was on it, pulling them forward, and it wouldn’t be long now. Seconds.
Behind him, he felt Maggie tense up like a spring.
The vision of the day he left home vanished.
His lower back tightened.
His breath left him.
His skeleton felt ready to abandon ship.
Below, the rushing earth disappeared, revealing inky, sinky darkness. Then he saw the half-moon, reflected on a sheet of water.
Maggie squeezed his hand.
He would never know if he actually jumped or not. It didn’t matter. They were on the train.
And then they weren’t.