This story is included in Reaps, available on Kindle.
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The Train To Lost Lake
© 2011 Jess Mowry
“Scott Piper!" yelled Scrap's stepmother. "Are you eating something in there?”
"No, Winnie," Scrap lied, trying to clearly pronounce his words, which wasn't the easiest thing to do with his mouth stuffed full of a big breakfast sandwich.
His stepmother, Winnie -- who Scrap had always refused to call "mom" -- suspiciously rattled the door to his room. This freaked Scrap a little because the lock was a flimsy bolt that a five-year-old could have kicked open. But Winnie -- to put it politely -- was very “money-conscious,” and Scrap decided she wouldn’t bust in because then she would have to pay someone to fix the broken lock.
"I smell food!" squalled Winnie as if she thought Scrap was cooking crack. "If you're eating something I'll whop your...!” She might have turned to an open window. “...I’ll discipline you severely!”
Scrap swallowed everything in his mouth, which took a massive gulp. "It must be McDonalds on the corner.”
"It better be!” yelled Winnie. "I warned you after your father died that I wouldn't let you stay obese! I got a note from your school last week and you haven’t lost any weight all year! In fact you gained twenty pounds!”
"I'm thirteen," said Scrap. "I'm supposed to be growing." Then he added under his breath, “Which is hard to do when you’re being starved.”
Logic was always lost on Winnie, who lowered her voice a little. “Your obesity makes me look bad. Next thing I know, Child Protective Services will accuse me of neglecting you and all the neighbors will talk.” She raised her voice to full volume again so all the neighbors could hear. “That's why you're going to weight-loss camp! I'm getting the car out out now! You have five minutes to be ready! ...And wear your corduroy trousers! I won’t have you looking like fat ghetto trash and embarrassing me any more!”
"Oh shit," muttered Scrap, as Winnie’s shoes clicked away down the hall to tromp self-righteously down the stairs. "She bought me those nerdy pants three months ago and I'll never get into them now!”
"Maybe you still can," said Logan, who'd been poised the whole time at the window in case he had to make a bust.
"I doubt it, man," said Scrap. He was sitting at the controls of his trains and looked down at his midnight body, which was only clad in boxer shorts, and those were way too tight. Only a rabid health-nazi would have called him obese: he was five feet, four inches tall and weighed about 180 pounds, but he was small-boned and his chub was the soft and rolly kind that made him look like he weighed a lot more. He had bobby boy-breasts like melons of Jell-O, and his belly hung over his jeans -- when he was wearing jeans -- but normal people would have called him cute, with a chubby-cheeked and button-nosed face and large and long-lashed ebony eyes beneath a woolly bush of hair. He ate the rest of his sandwich as Logan plopped back on a chair beside him.
"You better give it a try," said Logan, who was wearing only jeans after secretly spending the night. "Unless you want her to whop your behind. ...Or ‘discipline you severely.’ You’re gonna be sitting a long time on the train.”
Logan was also thirteen, blond and blue-eyed with rat-tailed hair, though Winnie called him trailer-trash because he lived in a mobile home, and he wasn’t supposed to hang with Scrap because it might look bad to the neighbors in Meadow Valley Subdivision... “a nice suburban community.” Likewise, she wouldn’t call Scrap by his nickname -- his toddler pronunciation of Scott which his father had always called him -- because that sounded “ghetto.”
Logan was a muscular boy, his body as hard as a sheet-metal roof with high jutting pecs and a washboard belly, even though he hated sports, which pissed-off the coach who gave him D's.
Scrap switched off his electric train, which he and Logan had been running. The layout took up half the room, and Scrap was always adding to it. "She’s whopped my ass so much this year it's the toughest part of my body. She’s not strong enough to hurt me, ‘specially since she’s been eating ‘healthy,’ but it’s stupid and annoying. I yell real loud and that makes her scared of what the neighbors might think.”
It was a warm summer morning in June, and Logan had climbed out the second-floor window -- just as he’d climbed last night -- to get breakfast sandwiches from McDonalds and orange juice and a quart of real milk from the mini-mart a block away.
He’d been smuggling food to Scrap since school had begun last year and Winnie had ordered Scrap to lose weight. To make Scrap “fit and healthy,” Winnie gave him half a grapefruit for breakfast, a small bowl of oatmeal, usually cold, and a can of “miracle weight-loss drink” she had seen advertised on TV... which Scrap dumped out the window. His lunch was a slice of low-carb bread that looked and tasted like sawdust, and another can of diet-drink... which also went out the window. Dinner was a microwave meal, also touted on TV as “guaranteed to burn away fat.” It smelled like plastic, looked like vomit, and tasted like infection. And there was another diet-drink, which of course went out the window. Since the flowers below had started to die, Logan had been taking the stuff and dumping it down the sewer.
He also brought Scrap real food, either from his mom -- who cooked real food -- or from McDonalds or Quickie-Mart, so, much to Winnie’s frustrated rage, Scrap hadn’t lost a single ounce. And, since for the last three months of school she had ordered him to come straight home and spend his weekends in his room -- as punishment for being obese -- he could only sit and work on his trains, watch TV or read a book, so he’d gained another twenty pounds.
Scrap heard Winnie’s new Volvo start up in the otherwise empty two-car garage... one of the few new things she had bought to front her nice suburban image. Winnie had sold his father’s Jeep less than a month after his death in a private plane crash a year before, and had also been selling his rare old books and railroad memorabilia.
Scrap’s dad had started a computer component salvage company back before recycling was “in,” and had made a ton of money when everything went green. Of course he'd moved out of the city, but had still employed At-Risk youth. Scrap had been born in the ‘burbs, and his life had been a happy one until a nice suburban drunk-driver had killed his mom in a car accident. She, Scrap assumed, had gone to heaven, while the nice suburban alcoholic had been given a year of rehabilitation in a nice suburban facility.
Scrap had never understood what his father had seen in Winnie. Maybe Winnie had taken advantage of his father’s shock and sadness?
Winnie was formerly ghetto, though of course she always denied it, and had probably left the marks of her claws on the backs of all she had climbed over. She was predatorally pretty and made herself miserable staying thin by seldom eating anything that didn’t look like a dung-beetle had rolled it onto her plate. She had never been cool with Scrap’s chubbiness -- a kid could always tell -- though she’d managed to keep her hate concealed until Scrap’s father died. Scrap’s dad had loved his chubby son and had never put any pressure on Scrap to go out for sports or be health-nazi “fit.” But, Scrap had still been an active boy, riding his skateboard and mountain bike and chasing around with Logan, and both had always said no to all the nice suburban drugs.
Scrap’s father had been like a father to Logan, and even after he'd died and Winnie had tried to bust them up by calling Logan a bad influence and telling Scrap to make "useful friends," the window had kept them tight. There was a vent pipe to climb or slide down, though this was always risky because Winnie seldom left the house except to jog around the block to show the neighbors how healthy she was and down with nice suburban values, or did anything else that required dollars -- except selling things to acquire more -- so Scrap could only sneak out at night. Then he and Logan would cruise to McDees or have a real dinner with Logan's mom.
Winnie wasn’t a rocket-scientist, but she wasn't so stupid as not to suspect that Scrap was getting food somewhere and Logan was probably his supplier. She had become more suspicious as, despite all her efforts to starve him skinny, he had put on twenty pounds. Last month she had taken away his phone and cut off his internet connection, hoping to break his ties to Logan, but if she had known anything about boys -- except how to play men to get over -- she would have spotted the vent pipe and maybe had bars installed on the window... even if it cost her something.
Then, about two weeks ago, Winnie had marched into Scrap’s room with his usual dinner of dung-beetle spew and hurled a booklet into his face. "This is where you're going, you unfit obese little slob! I won’t have you spending the summer playing with your stupid trains and getting even more obese!" With that she had plonked down his "dinner" and left.
"What's that all about?" asked Logan, who'd been hiding under Scrap’s bed.
Scrap had studied the booklet. "Shit!" he’d cried. "It's a fat camp!”
"Shit," agreed Logan, who'd returned to the model train layout. Besides his daily actual food smuggled in by Logan, the H.O. trains were the only thing that Scrap spent money on. Logan brought a freight train to a stop, then sat on the bed beside Scrap. "It sure looks old," he'd added, as Scrap flipped though the yellowed pages.
“Yeah,” Scrap had agreed. “I wonder if Winnie found it with what’s left of my dad’s old books.”
Both had studied the dusty old booklet: there were faded black-and-white pictures of boys who looked like characters in Leave It To Beaver except for being chubby or fat, some a lot fatter than Larry Mondelo. Most were dressed in old-school jeans, striped T-shirts and punk tennis shoes... which hadn’t been punk in Beaver’s day. There were pictures of other fat kids in old-fashioned baggy swimming trunks while they swam in a lake or rowed wooden boats.
Despite his horror of being sent to a fat camp, Scrap was interested in the pictures because they also showed kids riding horses and doing other cool things. But what really caught his attention were views of what looked like a steam train excursion through mountains and forest along a lake shore. Since his father had loved old trains, that was probably why he’d acquired the booklet.
Logan had pointed to a picture of a camp dining room that was filled with fat and chubby boys seated at long wooden tables. "Looks like a lotta food on those tables. Real food! Check it out, man, that’s fried chicken! And there’s mashed potatoes, and that’s a pizza. And check out those pies and cakes for dessert! Even in black-and-white they look good!”
"Yeah," agreed Scrap, scanning the pictures, which made him as hungry as living color. "But they didn't have shitty-ass diet food then. I guess they fed the kids normal stuff and gave ‘em a lot of cool things to do so they’d burn off the calories.”
"Maybe they did," said Logan. "Check it out, those dudes all look happy! ...Hey, there's even some black ones! That musta been a phat fat camp if black kids could go there way back then. That’s gotta be a long time ago, like when there was segregation.”
"Yeah," agreed Scrap. "Those old-time racists were as bad as health-nazis. But maybe those kids were brainwashed into thinking they were having fun? Kids were pretty stupid before they had the internet, and believed any shit that adults told them.”
He flipped to the back of the booklet. “This was printed in 1960.”
“Damn,” said Logan. "You'd think they would have made new ones by now.”
"I’m sure they did," said Scrap. "But, knowing Winnie and all her poo, she wouldn't have wanted to spend anything to send away for a new one."
"Shit, man," said Logan, shaking his head." A fat camp! That’s a zillion times worse than summer school!”
"More like a zillion-zillion!" said Scrap, throwing the booklet on the floor. "I never thought she'd stoop that low! ...Or at least wanna spend any money to try and make me lose weight.”
"Yeah," agreed Logan. "Starving you is cheaper." Then he picked up the booklet. "Lost Lake Camp For Boys. Don’t say nothing about fat boys, or even overweight boys.”
Scrap had shrugged. "The Nazis told the Jews they were going to ‘relocation camps where work would make them free.'”
“Yeah, and then they were gonna take ‘showers.’” Then Logan had whistled. "It's only a hundred dollars a month. That’s cheap enough for Winnie.”
Scrap had shrugged again. "That was in 1960, man. A hundred dollars was a lot. Like, almost a thousand today. ...Damn, man! Winnie’s really gone health-nazi wack if she's willing to spend that kinda money to try and make me skinny!”
"Ever think about running away? You could live with me and my mom. She knows what Winnie's been doing to you. She even said the other day she wished we could adopt you.”
“Thanks, but your mom isn’t rich, you know.”
“You got that secret bank-account and ATM card your dad left you.”
Scrap looked at a picture on his desk of he and his dad at a railroad museum standing in front of a steam locomotive, and both with ice cream cones. "Dad was cool to set it up so his lawyer didn't tell Winnie about it. I think he was getting wise to her. But, I can only draw out a hundred a week ‘cause it's meant to keep earning interest.”
"That's plenty to cover your food, man.”
Scrap had smiled. "Dad called it my snack account. But there's a trust fund waiting for me when I turn eighteen, and it's money that Winnie can't touch. I can use it to go to college and get the hell away from her. But if I ran away now and got caught... which would make her look bad... she'd probably put me in a cheap boys school.”
Logan had shrugged. "That can’t be much worse than keeping you prisoner and trying to starve you to death.”
“Maybe not,” said Scrap. “But I couldn’t have my trains, and I’d probably never see you again.”
"So, you gonna let her send you to fat camp?”
Scrap had sighed, going to his train layout, where he and Logan had been building a trestle over a rocky gorge. "I don't think I have any choice. Like, what can I do about it? Nobody calls it child-abuse when you starve a kid and treat him like shit to try to make him skinny.”
"Bet your dad's lawyer would," said Logan. "If you explained it to him. You could get emancipated like an old-time slave.”
"It's something to think about," said Scrap. "But, legal stuff takes time and I’ve only got two weeks.” He'd glanced at the booklet again. "They still have to feed me at fat camp, and probably better than Winnie has. And it might even be worth all the shit if they still have that cool old train. That locomotive is an Alco 2-6-0. They used them mostly for little branch lines. I should get one for the new line we're building.”
Logan had looked at the layout. “The branch line to... what are we gonna call it?”
Scrap had shrugged once more. "Nothing until we finish it... and it doesn't look like we will this summer." He'd scanned the booklet again, checking the pictures of happy fat boys who were probably grandfathers by now.
Logan had frowned. "That place could have changed a lot since 1960, man." He'd glanced down at his muscular body. "Like, there's no chubby kids anymore... not normal happy ones, I mean. Or happy fat kids either. Now, if you don't look like me, or some starving kid in Africa, haters call you obese and try to make your life shit. Maybe they got rid of the train, and they only have shitty diet food. ...And what if it's a like a boot camp now with health-nazi goons in your face all the time yellin' at you to get skinny?”
"Then I'll think about running away.”
Now, two weeks later, Scrap struggled to zip the corduroy pants below the wobbly mass of his belly.
"Suck in your belly some more," said Logan, who was trying to help.
"It’s maximum suck already!" gasped Scrap. “...Shit, forget it, man! I’ll wear my old big-jeans... my ‘ghetto jeans,’ like Winnie calls ‘em. We gotta be at the station soon, so she doesn’t have time to whop my ass.” He stripped off the trousers and kicked them away. "I'll miss you, man," he added, giving Logan a hug.
Logan returned the hug. "I'll miss you, too.”
Then they heard Winnie's shoes on the stairs. "Better bail, man," said Scrap.
"I'm outta here," said Logan, scampering to the window. "I hope you're still you when you get back. They brainwash kids in those places. It's like on TV what they say about cults.”
Scrap laughed. "I'm not gonna join the the calorie-counting Ku Klux Klan no matter what they do to me!”
“Lost Lake Junction.”
"Huh?" said Scrap, opening his eyes.
"Lost Lake Junction, son," said the elderly black conductor.
"...Oh," said Scrap, sitting up and rubbing his eyes.
Winnie had gone ballistic finding that Scrap had gotten too chubby to wear his "decent trousers" and was looking like “obese ghetto-trash to deliberately embarrass her.” Scrap had further pissed her off by wearing an ancient T-shirt with a Southern-Pacific logo that his dad had bought him years before and which didn't quite cover his belly... so people would give Winnie hate stares for letting him be obese.
But Winnie didn't have time for a fit; she only had fifteen minutes to drive him to the station. She had marched him to the platform to make sure he didn’t buy any snacks, but of course his suitcase was stuffed with them. Winnie had also warned him not to buy any food on the train, though clueless about his bank account she didn't think he had any green.
Lunch was being served just as train had pulled out, and Scrap had gone to the dining car for chicken-fried steak, mashed potatoes, buttered corn-on-the-cob and biscuits. He’d washed it down with real milk and then had a slice of banana cream pie before taking a seat in Coach... which was all that Winnie had paid for because First Class included meals.
He’d brought his new issue of Model Railroad, but he’d been so happily stuffed with lunch that he’d napped for an hour or two. Then he had snacked from his suitcase, figuring they would search it at camp so he'd best eat it all before he got there. Then he'd had a steak for dinner with a baked potato, buttered green beans, a garden salad, a glass of real milk, and another slice of banana cream pie. Once again full of actual food, he’d returned to his seat and fallen asleep.
Now he yawned and blinked his eyes, feeling the train slowing down. Outside it was totally dark, but he dimly saw what looked like a forest pressing in close to the tracks. And, over the diesel smell of the train, he scented the woodsy fragrance of pine.
"Step lively, son," said the old conductor, as the train's brakes squealed and it came to a halt. "We never stop at Lost Lake Junction. It's a good thing your mother told me or I might have forgotten to wake you up.”
"She's my stepmother," mumbled Scrap, still drowsy from all he had eaten to prepare himself for being starved.
The conductor laughed. “Not a wicked one I hope, like in storybooks.”
“Her picture's next to 'wicked' in the dictionary.”
"Sorry to hear that, son, but we all got our burdens to bear in life, an' what don't kill you makes you stronger.”
"Then I'm as strong as a locomotive.”
"You look pretty healthy to me, son. Back where I came up it was a shame to have skinny kids." The man was obviously in a hurry, picking up Scrap's suitcase and bustling him down the corridor.
"Sorry to rush you, son," apologized the conductor as he scooted Scrap out the doorway. "But we're gonna have to make up the time we lost by stoppin’ here.”
Still a little sleepy, Scrap found himself on a wooden platform on a warm and pine-scented night. It was dark except for one dim bulb above the door of a small shabby station. The bulb, hanging bare from frayed-looking wires, illuminated a faded old sign: LOST LAKE JUNCTION. The only other light was the glow from the train's line of windows.
"Um," yawned Scrap. "What time is it?”
"Ten-fifty-five," replied the conductor, setting Scrap’s suitcase out on the platform. "Which makes us exactly five minutes late.”
Scrap had traveled a lot with his dad and gave the conductor a five-dollar bill for carrying his suitcase, something conductors seldom did... that job reserved for porters.
“Thank you, sir," said the man. "Y'all have a nice evenin', now." He laughed. “At least you’re away from your wicked stepmom.”
"At least," said Scrap. “And thanks.”
Then he scoped around. The little old station looked deserted and there weren't any lights inside. He didn't see any other lights except for those of the train.
"Um," he said, as the conductor signaled the engineer and diesels rumbled far up the tracks. "I'm supposed to get on another train. Do you know...?”
But the train was already moving away and rapidly picking up speed. For a second Scrap felt like running for the door and jumping back on board! But then it was too late, and he found himself in near total darkness watching a pair of red tail lights fading away up the tracks. In another few moments they were gone, and the thunder of diesels and clacking of wheels had vanished into the night, leaving only the chirping of crickets and a sleepily hooting owl.
"Well, shit!" said Scrap.
The stars were shining bright overhead in a sky that looked like ebony velvet, but otherwise the only light was the one little bulb at the station door. Scrap scanned around for other lights that might have indicated a town, but there seemed to be nothing but trees everywhere; and against the starry sky in the east he could make out some forested mountains. He’d been so pissed about fat camp that he hadn't really listened much to what Winnie had said about getting there, and he only remembered something now about changing trains at Lost Lake Junction.
But, when would the other train arrive?
The pine-scented air was comfortably warm, and Scrap supposed there weren't any wolves or bears still around -- they were either extinct or safe in zoos -- so he didn't feel scared but only confused.
Even in the dim glow of the feeble light bulb he began to notice that, not only was the station deserted, it was actually rotten and falling apart. The boards of the platform had weeds in their cracks, and sagged and creaked beneath his sneaks as, picking up his suitcase, he went to the station door. The building's windows were all boarded up and the door was locked with a huge padlock... the brass, old-fashioned railroad kind. Near the door was a Coke machine. Faded white letters said Enjoy Coca-Cola 5 Cents. That was a hell of a bargain, but the machine looked way too old to be working. The only other thing on the platform was a sagging wooden bench, and weeds grew on it, too.
As his eyes adjusted to the night, he saw what looked like an old water tank maybe a hundred feet down the tracks... the kind that steam locomotives used. He heard the sound of trickling water, which seemed kind of sleepy and soothing. Otherwise, there was only the chirping of crickets and sometimes the hoot of an owl.
Leaving his suitcase beside the bench, he walked around the platform to the other side of the station, which was also boarded up. It was too dark to see a road or a street, and there were no lights in the distance that might have been a town. There seemed to be nothing but forest surrounding an abandoned station.
It was a little freaky to be all alone in the middle of nowhere with no sign of life except crickets and owls. And why weren’t there any other kids here waiting for the train to Lost Lake? Scrap thought for a moment: there seemed to be only one explanation; since Winnie had been too cheap to get a new booklet about the camp, she had sent him here like kids had come back in 1960!
Maybe nobody came by train anymore? Scrap wasn't eager to get to fat camp, but being stranded in nowhere at night wasn't a cool alternative! But, assuming there wasn’t a train anymore, how could he get out of here?
He walked back around the station building, careful of the rotted boards, a few of which were missing. His eyes were becoming more used to the dark, and he noticed what looked like a picture frame by a boarded-up ticket window. He wiped the dusty glass with a hand and saw a yellowed old schedule inside. He could barely read it by the dim light bulb, but he finally saw that the train to Lost Lake was supposed to arrive at midnight.
Well, he thought, the only thing he could do was wait and see if the train was still running. If it wasn't, he’d have to stay here till morning. Maybe someone would open the station? There had to be a phone inside, and he would call Logan. He had a two-way ticket so he could always go back home -- even if home was a health-nazi hell -- and maybe they could figure out something. Like cribbing with Logan on the under all summer. Winnie wouldn't expect him to write, and he sure as hell hadn’t planned to!
And maybe he'd see his father's lawyer about getting emancipated.
He scanned around again. Even if nobody came in the morning, at least he could see his surroundings. He still had some snacks in his suitcase, and he could drink from the old water tank so he wouldn't starve or die of thirst. He was smart, brave, and fairly strong, not stupid, cowardly and weak like stereotypical fat kids. Even if there wasn't a road, the railroad tracks would lead to a town. And, other trains would be passing the station; and even if they were only freights he supposed he could somehow make one stop and ask the engineer for help.
End of excerpt. This story is included in Reaps, available on Kindle.