First line challenge

I had the good fortune to have Thanksgiving with my lifelong friend, and we exchanged a first-line challenge, where we provided each other with the opening line of a potential story. We negotiated to write 1,000 words by Ravens/Bengals kickoff on Sunday, but I wrote my first 1300 words this morning, with about another 1000 to go later this weekend.

Here’s what I came up with.

He watched the seconds tick by – inhaling and exhaling – while he waited for the train to arrive. He had learned long ago that, when everything else around him was collapsing, the one thing he could focus on and control was his breathing. It allowed him to keep his head in Fallujah at the height of Operation Phantom Fury, when he repeated the one prayer he knew over and over, believing it was the bridge he’d need after being blown up by some IED—a discarded shoe or even a tired baby doll. He did everything possible to keep the rhythm of breath-prayer-breath in sync with his heavy steps.

Inhale, step-step: Direct me now, O gracious Lord. . .Exhale, step-step: And let eternal life be found. . .Inhale, step-step: Direct me now, O gracious Lord. . .

Afterward, when the insomnia kicked in back home in Baltimore, he thought about how breathing kept him alive as much as prayer.

Now, he hoped he could somehow pull off the same miracle, this time on the Light Rail tracks just outside the post office on Ruxton Road.

Inhale: Direct me now, O gracious Lord. . .Exhale: And let eternal life be found. . .Inhale: Direct me now, O gracious Lord. . .

He had just stepped outside after sending a few letters to the boys he came home with, and another letter to Charlie and Grace about their son’s heroics last January. It was his promise to Allan that morning, that he’d keep in touch with them and bring to life every laugh, every story shared with Allan before he died. It wasn’t hard to do, really. In fact, it helped him a little, too, when the pain seemed a little stronger on days like this.

He passed the animal hospital on the small strip of stores and stepped on to the parking lot. He could already feel the rumble of the approaching train on the tracks behind the stores, and he couldn’t wait to get in his car, turn on some Zeppelin, and drown out the rest of the world on his ride home. His restored red Chevelle stood out in the corner, the Crager mags catching the sun every which way. To his left, the roar of the northbound light rail train dulled the other sounds around him as it passed by, and he picked up his pace to his car. In just seconds, he would be back on Ruxton, navigating the sharp turn toward West Joppa Road and heading home.

He never made it. Not home, not on Joppa. No navigation of sharp turns. Not even any Black Dog or Dazed and Confused.

Afterward, he wasn’t sure whether it was the blinding shards of light from the mags or the deafening sound of the train passing by that distracted him, because somewhere between the last light rail car passing the Chevelle and Alex removing the sunglasses from his shirt pocket (those reflections from the mags were just a little too much like the flashes of light in Fallujah), he was struck with the full force of a 1985 Toyota Corolla. Later, the report would detail how the driver dropped his phone making the turn at Joppa and Ruxton and lost control of the car when he bent over to pick it up.

Alex’s glasses flew straight up in the air as his body, lifeless like some ragdoll drop-kicked across a room, hurtled the fence and tumbled down the embankment, finally resting on the train tracks.

He could still feel the vibrations from the northbound train that had just passed, a sizzle-hum that faded all too quickly as he lay on the tracks, unable to move.

On the other side of the fence, he heard the shits and damns from the teenaged driver, looking at the damage to his car that ended up in the front end of some guy’s nicely restored red Chevelle.

“Fuck! My father’s going to KILL me!”

Alex heard a few patrons coming out of the post office, rushing to the teen to see if he was okay. When they arrived, he told them to hold on as he texted his girlfriend.

Got phone, in accident, all ok. BRB.

They formed a circle around him and the two cars as someone called 911.

No, everybody’s fine. Just get here as soon as you can.

They stepped over the green anti-freeze fluid flowing down toward Ruxton. Was it from the Corolla? The Chevelle? Impossible to tell, another gawker said. The front ends of both cars were too intertwined to tell which took the harder hit. Other fluids—oil, transmission fluid, was it? And something dark red—they covered the ground like some middle school science experiment gone awry.

They talked louder. Waited for the county cop to sort it all out. Wondered who owned the pretty red Chevelle parked in the corner, now pushed against the fence that protected innocent patrons from falling onto the tracks.

Alex tried to shout, but his right lung was punctured, and the best he could do was whisper the same thing, over and over, as he waited for the sounds and the vibrations of the inevitable southbound train:

Inhale: Direct me now, O gracious Lord. . .Exhale: And let eternal life be found. . .Inhale: Direct me now, O gracious Lord. . .

Towering above the strip stores and across Ruxton was another three shops—all consignment—with a miniature Big Ben clock towering over the center store. Alex couldn’t see the entire face of the clock, but he could watch the second hand sweep between the 9 and the 3. The minute hand, moving ever-slowly toward the number 1 (was it really only a little after 2 p.m.?), helped him measure exactly how much time he had to get off the tracks. The southbound train would be passing through in less than 7 minutes.

Barely enough time to be rescued or signal ahead to the operator to stop the train before it reached Ruxton Station.

“Shit! My father is going to be so pissed,” he heard the teen say again.

Then the sound of a siren on Ruxton Road. Thank goodness, they all thought, that nobody was injured. The biggest victim, it seemed, was the poor stranger who owned that beautiful Chevelle.

When the officer arrived and made sure nobody was injured, he pointed a finger at the Chevelle.

“Anybody know who’s car this is?”

Inside the post office, the front desk attendant looked up at the clock: 2:01 p.m. Time to punch out, finally. She picked up the stack of envelopes she had just collected from her customers and moved them to the outgoing bin. She noticed Alex’s letters, the same cream-colored envelopes he always used to write to his buddies (and always Charlie and Grace), and figured he’d be long gone by now in his red Chevelle, playing his predictable Zeppelin, and heading to Loch Raven for a walk along the reservoir before heading home. Maybe she’d meet him there this time. Just to make sure he was okay.

She rinsed her hands, grabbed her coat, and headed toward the back door, where the tracks were just feet from the walkway that led her to the parking lot.

“Chels, got a minute?”

Of course she did. She turned around, stepped into her manager’s office, and closed the door.

It was now 2:03 p.m.

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