Amtrak 234. A serialized short story by Herb Schultz

Part Seven. Amtrak 234 Meets Cary Hayes.

Cary backed his car out of the Mills Mansion visitor parking lot and drove down the narrow, ill-maintained driveway made up almost entirely of asphalt patches applied over the decades. Cary marveled at how a state with the largest tax burden per capita in America could do such a poor job. At least his convertible Saab absorbed the potholes and hummocks well.

Sage fingered her kalimba-like cell-phone, replying in quiet concentration to a backlog of text messages. Cary flipped on the radio to NPR just as the brief “Word for the Wise” program came on. He had taken an etymology course in high school and became fascinated with how often the roots of words hid in plain sight. Today the word for the wise was “marmalade,” which as the female radio host noted derived from a Portuguese word meaning “quince,” and not as some people believed from “Marie malade” – French for “sick Mary” – because Mary Queen of Scots supposedly consumed marmalade to cure headaches. Cary preferred to believe the debunked etymology; it seemed too good not to be true.

Sage was now making a call on her cell-phone, conversing quite animatedly. She half-whispered something about “ink.” The mention caught Cary’s attention and rekindled his fear that Sage might one day get a tattoo. Or worse – that she was secretly sporting one already. Cary cringed at the concept of a big, garish “tramp-stamp” permanently etched above his innocent young daughter’s butt-crack, or a lascivious image indelibly applied to an even more intimate body part. He quickly dispatched the thought; too gruesome to contemplate. Cary settled back into the anodyne news report on NPR as he absent-mindedly drove through a serpentine passage blasted out of the rock 100 years ago, one that intersected at an obtuse angle with another passage for a single railroad track.

“Crap!” barked Sage out of the blue. Cary, startled, looked over at her. “I lost the sig–” Cary didn’t hear the rest of the word, and maybe Sage didn’t utter it, for at that precise moment Cary had driven onto the unguarded tracks into the path of Amtrak train 234, high-balling at 70 mph.

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The engineer would testify much later that he had properly blown the horn – two long, one short, one long – as required in advance of crossing the road, but doubts were raised on cross-examination as several passengers on board recalled otherwise. A spokesperson for Amtrak was quoted saying, “Signals mean different things at different places. We don’t yet know if there was confusion or a distraction.” Perhaps Cary and the engineer responsible for Amtrak 234 had broken a number of laws that morning, but one law stood unflaunted: F = ma. Force equals mass times acceleration – or per Isaac Newton: “Mutationem motus proportionalem esse vi motrici impressae, et fieri secundum lineam rectam qua vis illa imprimitur.”

The train continued nearly a half mile after striking Cary and Sage before coming to a stop, during which time the Saab – pinned to the nose of the engine – jettisoned most of its parts list along both sides of the rails. The convertible ragtop was the least prepared to endure the collision, ripping clean off within seconds. By contrast, the 120-ton locomotive would require little more than a dab of paint.

Dozing passengers were abruptly wakened by the cacophony of the screeching brakes and crunching metal. They watched out the windows in horror as pieces of the auto flew off into the adjacent woods. Frantic 911 calls went out from dozens of cell phones. A few jaded commuters grumbled about yet another delay.

Within just ten minutes the first of more than 100 law enforcement personnel, firemen, ambulance crews and newscasters arrived on the scene. It was a toss-up as to whether officials from the NTSB and their tape-measures and clipboards would beat the injury lawyers to the crash site.

Next. Part Eight. Billy Rubin Visits the Crash Site.

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