Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Litterbug - Part 3 of 3

© 2009 by Henry Melton

Maybe Dad's whole theory was wrong and it was unrelated to today's event?
But that didn't make sense either.
He shifted in his seat, and heard the faint rattle of the wrapper in his pocket.  Why had he brought it along?
He pulled it out, and while the President spoke about his future plans to help the farmers, Jerry stared again at the shiny plastic.
It was frustrating.  The packaging did look futuristic, in many subtle ways.  For example, the seams were really merged, not just hot crimped like normal.  Even the font that advertising text was written in was like nothing he had seen before, yet clean and crisp and very readable.  And that info-dot–how far into the future before everybody easily used things like that?
But if it was from the future, it had to be related in some way to this event.   If the traveler dropped the wrapper yesterday, he had to be scouting out the area before today's festivities.  Why?
He looked over the scene again.  It was a mob, packed with people all around the stands and nearly up to the train.  Even Highway 79 was blocked off.  All traffic, road and railroad, had to stop while the President gave his speech.
Jerry glanced along the rails.
He stood up and grabbed his binoculars.  Far to the west, there was something on the tracks.  The heat shimmer made it hard to see, but it looked like another train was coming.
Vividly, he remembered picking up the Brokies wrapper, wedged against the rails–right next to the switch.  It was almost the last bit of litter he had picked up.
The switch!
From his position on the top row, he could make out the yellow-tipped handle that controlled which position the rail was in.  It was just like they had left it when they directed the special onto the siding.  
But surely the oncoming train would stop.  They had traffic signals and there was a red light on the tower.  He could see it plainly.
He turned his binoculars again on the oncoming train.  It was coming closer.  But something looked wrong.  There was no engine.
A runaway!
His father had told him something like this had happened before.  Eight miles away in Round Rock, several cars had been parked on a siding.  They were all connected to an air-hose that controlled the brakes.  A loss of air stopped the car.  The rules were to bleed the air out of the hose when parking train cars, but someone had taken the short cut and left them pressurized.  
The land between Round Rock and Hutto looked flat, but there was indeed a grade, enough to keep Brushy Creek flowing swiftly, and enough to accelerate the cars to dangerous speeds.
Those are tanker cars.  Chemicals.
For the first time, he felt afraid.
He looked over at the town.  Of course.
The tanker cars would come barreling into town and smash into the Presidential special on the siding.  The tanks would rupture and splash flaming death over the President, the news crews, and all the people of Hutto.
And me too.
There!  The man in the black suit was watching him again.  He waved his arms wide and shouted, "Train!  A train is coming!"  He pointed.
The people from Hutto frowned at him.  Trains coming through town were nothing new.  
But the Secret Service man was talking into his radio, and instantly, there was motion all over the stage.  Men stopped the President in mid-sentence and were hustling him off the stage.  The locals were starting to panic.
Jerry looked around for his father.
Back at the edge of the crowd, almost to Main Street, his father was resting against the two-story brick general store.  Back there, they hadn't noticed anything wrong.
And at the corner of the building, a man was avidly scanning the scene with a camcorder.  There was nothing odd about that, except for the strange color plaid baseball cap he wore.  Maybe there were plaid baseball caps somewhere, but he had never seen one before.
There was shouting below.  The compact wedge of Secret Service men protecting and moving the President shoved their way through the crowd at the base of the stand.  They were making for the parking area, where other agents were trying to get a car free of the jammed space.
They aren't going to make it.
Jerry looked back along the track.  The runaway was much closer.
The yellow end of the switch handle was barely visible.  That was the pivot point.  That was the difference the time traveler had examined yesterday.
The President wouldn't make it to safety in time.  The news crews and all their videotape would be destroyed in the inferno.  Other than a fragment of live broadcast, there would be little to document what happened to cause this great catastrophe.  Future researchers would die to know what exactly transpired.
It was all clear in his head, but there was no way he could reach the switch in time to avert the onrush of history.
Below, in the mob, the shouts were getting more strident.  His SS agent was one of them.  Yelling at hi radio.
Jerry jumped over the edge of the stands, and landed painfully in the mass of Secret Service men.  A pistol was shoved immediately in his face.
Jerry yelled, "Somebody get the switch changed back to the main line!  The runaway is heading for the siding!"
His agent put a hand on the pistol and pushed it down out of his cheek.  With the other hand, he was already on his radio, yelling for the railroad workers.
But the agents didn't stop for him.  They were getting the President to safety no matter what.
Jerry pulled himself up off the ground and started shoving through the mob on his own.  He had to reach his father.
Up ahead, trying to buck the stream of panicked people, there he was, looking for him.
And filming the whole thing, the man in the plaid ball cap was standing in the doorway of the large brick building, maybe the safest spot in the whole town.  A time traveler would know which places came through unscathed, wouldn't he?
Jerry gritted his teeth.  Let us all die, but get your video!  He turned and stalked straight for the time traveler.  The man glanced up from his viewfinder.
Jerry pulled the wrapper from his pocket.  He waved it and yelled.  "I know about you!  It's not going to happen!"
The man with the camera looked at him.  Jerry could see his eyes focus on the wrapper, and comprehension come over his face, like the face of horror.
There was a sudden wrench, and Jerry stumbled, and almost fell.
I can't panic now.  This will be the safest place in town, I just know it!
There was the growing rumble of a train coming, and as he rounded the corner of the building, the string of a dozen tanker cars blazed through town on the main line.
They made it!  The surge of relief was cut short by the flash of an explosion as the cars finally jumped the track just past the old baseball field at the far edge of town.
But I'm alive.  I'm alive.
"I understand we have a real live hero!"  The President came into the room and the Secret Service men who had been questioning him backed out of his way.
Jerry shook his head, "Hardly a hero, sir."
The President held out his hand and Jerry shook it.
"I am quite sure I owe you my life, and maybe two thousand other people could say the same thing.  I think that qualifies you as a hero.  That's what I've been telling the press, and you know they believe everything I say."
Jerry was uncomfortably aware of the blaze of camera lights that had accompanied the President.  He could only smile timidly.
But the President wasn't done with the moment.  "How did you know that the train switch was in the wrong position?"
Jerry shook his head.  "Just instinct, I guess.  I had been on the cleanup crew yesterday–picking up litter along the tracks–and I had looked at how the switch worked.  From where I was in the stands, I could just tell that it was wrong."
"You have good instincts.  And a good heart working for you town like you did.  You ought to go into politics when you get a little older."
Jerry tried to hide the thought of what his father would say about that.
One of the other men in suits came up. "The boy's father has arrived."
Greg Foley entered, a little shy of the lights.  He ignored the President and came straight to his son.
"Dad, you made it."  They embraced.  Camera lights were concentrated and hot.
"I was in the pickup before the sound of the explosion reached the house.  But they almost didn't let me into town."
The President moved into the lights with them.
"I am sorry about that.  But let me thank you, too for your son's efforts."
"You are the President, aren't you?  What did he do?"
"He tackled a squad of Secret Service agents and made them switch the train tracks back to the main line.  He saved the day.  He saved the town too."
It was several hours later before they made their way back to the house.
"You know," said his father, "I almost think I'm a little psychic."
"What do you mean?"
"A moment before the explosion, just a few seconds really, I was hit by the sudden feeling that I really should be in town.  It was so clear.  I was already out the door when the flash happened.  I've never had a feeling like that before in my life."
"I know what you mean.  When I saw the train coming, I just knew where I had to run to try to escape the explosion.  Instinct I guess."
His father nodded, absently, and finished off his canned coke.  He crumpled it like always, and then hesitated for an instant, before tossing it into the aluminum recycle bin.
"Dad?"  Jerry was shocked.
His father grinned.  "Okay!  So maybe I'll stop being a litterbug.  After all, I have a famous son I shouldn't embarrass. Logically, I know I was right.  But..."
"But what?"
He shook his head. "I can't shake this feeling.  Logic isn't everything.  Nobody can predict all the effects of his actions.  I'd hate to litter and have it come back to haunt me."  He shrugged.
Jerry smiled.  "I'm proud of you Dad."

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