I don’t know how long I was standing there, I just know it was a lot longer than what would likely be considered “normal”. Normally, a person doesn’t just stand and stare at a door before entering a house. They hardly even notice the door. They just reach for the handle and enter. But me? I had been staring at the front door long enough to become aware of just how old it was. The dark red paint was peeling and the wood was splintered. The carvings and stained glass were lined with dirt and the handle was rusty. Rusty! How had I not ever noticed the rust before? Because I’d never stared at the door to my mom’s house for this long before. That’s why. I’d always just let myself in.
I gripped the cold, unfeeling plastic bag I was carrying a little tighter, then adjusted my coat as the wind billowed past me, chilling me as it picked up dead leaves and left them at my feet. My attention became focused on the leaves. They trembled in the breeze, their old veins cracked and withered. One of them was a deep red. Red like the front door. Red like the brand new model train I carried in the plastic bag.
The thought then crossed my mind, depressing me, reminding me of why I was there—as if I could forget, He’s going to hate this train.
My little brother, George, loved trains. Since before I could even remember—ever since he was tiny, my mom had said. When he was a toddler, the only thing he cared about was this dumb, rubber train engine. He clung to it the way other toddlers cling to blankets or their mothers. I was pretty sure that he still had that dumb train somewhere. It was probably all yellow now, with the colors all faded and worn away with age. Because, see, most kids grow out of their train phase. George never did. George wasn’t like most kids.
I know mom tried her best to help him grow, to help him think of other things. She’d make him go to school, and he’d take his rubber train. Teachers would do nothing but complain about George. He was impossible, they said. All he’d focus on was that train, and all he’d do was hide under a desk or sit in a corner, rocking back and forth, when it was taken away. I could remember mom dropping him off one day and trying to wrestle that dumb, rubber train from his chubby little fingers. There was outright panic in George’s big, brown eyes, and a look of anguish and betrayal when mom won the wrestle. It was the most expressive his face had ever been. Then mom broke down and cried. Eventually she stopped making George go to school.
I was fine with his whole weird thing with trains at first. I was just happy to have a little brother to play with. He would always be the conductor, I would be whatever he would let me be. That was how I had to play with George. I was the one always making the compromises. He would freak out—hiding behind the couch and rocking back and forth—if there was ever any change to the game. Then my mom would freak out and rush to George’s rescue. “He doesn’t understand,” she’d try to explain to me. “Please, just… be nice to him. He needs you. He doesn’t have anybody else.”
He needs you.
The words echoed in my head as the wind blew the leaves away. I reached out to finally open the door, the rusty knob cold against the sweat of my palm. Then I thought of how Mom had always been George’s champion.
I remembered when I’d finally had it with George’s trains. George was about 10-years-old, I was 12. Mom had bought him a gorgeous, Lionel model train set for his birthday. The engine was coal black and meticulously detailed, like it had once held an actual conductor and carried cars full of passengers but had been shrunk down just so George could have it. Mom even told him this, which were magic words. They triggered the closest thing to a smile that I had ever seen George wear. The train made all the sound effects and even had steam that would billow through the top.
George wouldn’t shut up about it. Or about Lionel trains in general. “The Lionel company’s first train was the Electric Express,” he’d said for the sixth or seventh time one day.
I glared at him, “So you’ve told me.”
“Mmmhmm,” he’d said, not really listening to me, “They-they didn’t build it to sell it, though. They-they didn’t build to sell it. It was for a store display.”
“Can we talk about something else?” I knew this was pointless, but the annoyance gnawing at my gut urged me to try.
“Then people wanted to buy them,” he went on, “People thought they were so cool, they wanted to buy them.”
The annoyance had spread and was now gnawing at the inside of my veins. “So George,” I tried again, “seen anything good on TV?”
Without looking at me, George blinked one big, elaborate blink. He did that when he was presented with an idea that he was struggling to consider. It was his way of brushing it off, “The first trains were bigger than these trains. The first trains had to be put on two tracks—”
That was when I finally snapped. “SHUT UP, GEORGE!”
George flinched and his whole body went rigid. He was even more determined not to look at me now, and stared fixedly at the floor. He started rehearsing facts about Lionel trains the way a Christian might recite the Lord’s Prayer to ward off evil, “The Lionel Corporation was founded by Joshua Lionel Cowen and Henry C. Grant in 1900—”
“Shut up! Shut up! Shut up! Don’t you know what ‘shut up’ means? Are you that dense?”
It wasn’t very often that I saw much emotion in my little brother’s eyes, but in that moment, I swore they looked both hurt and frightened. His gaze was still on the floor, his arms now wrapped around himself. Why wouldn’t he look at me? Why didn’t he ever look me? “—It was in New York City. They started in New York City. New York City—”
I grabbed his shirt and shook him, “Stop it! Just shut up!”
That was when mom intervened. She busted into the room with rage in her eyes. She pried me off of my brother and slapped me across the face. Silence settled over the living room, thick like frozen fog, as my mom’s hands flew to her face in shock. She’d never hit me before. Ever. Tears filled both her eyes and mine, my expression one of surprise and hurt, hers one of instant regret. George had thrown his hands over his ears and was now rocking back and forth, finally quiet. Still, mom didn’t apologize. She just said, with heartbreak in her voice, “He doesn’t understand… he doesn’t understand.”
Mom was George’s champion.
At that memory, I finally turned the knob and let myself into the house. Instantly, I was greeted with the sounds of small engines and whistles. The house really had a whimsical feel to it, because throughout the main floor was a scene of trains on tracks, winding their way around the ceiling and floor, going through tunnels that were built into the walls. Certain areas had small, model villages with trees and people. It almost felt as though I were walking into Santa’s workshop. It even smelled like Christmas, like cinnamon and toys. My kids had felt it, too, whenever I brought them by. They were still young enough to appreciate George’s trains. It was amazing to see George’s eyes light up at the sight of them, finally having someone as interested in his trains as he was.
My kids weren’t there with me now, though. This was something I had to do alone, though my eyes filled with tears at the thought of it. How was I supposed to tell him? How was I supposed to tell George that his hero, his champion, was suddenly gone? That her heart had given out at the grocery store, sweeping her life away like leaves in the wind?
I heard the shuffling of socks against the wood floor and saw George emerge from the kitchen, twisting his fingers nervously. He was in gray sweats and hadn’t shaved in a few days—since she’d been rushed to the hospital. I’d never seen him look so terrible. I could see it in his eyes, he was dreading whatever I had come to say.
I forced a smile and lifted up the plastic bag. “I brought you a new train!”
George merely glanced at the bag, still twisting his fingers. Then he said, in a hoarse, cracking voice, the first thing I’d heard him say in ages that had absolutely nothing to do with trains, “Where’s mom?”
All the strength left me. My hands fell to my sides as I looked at my poor brother. I opened my mouth to try and say it but instead, all I did was cry. Mom, his champion—our champion—was gone.
George was no fool, though many took him for one, myself included. His brown eyes, for the first time in his life, filled with tears, scanning the room as if he suddenly had no idea where he was. I dropped the train and threw my arm around his neck, holding him tightly as I sobbed.