me I was an out-of-control train about to crash…
Everything changed when the police officer knocked on the door to tell me – a 16-year-old – that my older sister Kristen had died of a brain aneurysm. Cue the start of my parents neglecting me and my whole life spiraling out of control.
I decided now was the perfect time to skip town. It’s the early 90’s, Kurt Cobain runs the grunge music scene and I just experienced some serious trauma. What’s a girl supposed to do? I didn’t want to end up like Kristen, so I grabbed my bucket list, turned up my mixtape of the greatest 90’s hits and fled L.A.. The goal was to end up at Kurt Cobain’s house in Seattle, but I never could have guessed what would happen along the way.
At turns heartbreaking, inspiring, and laugh out loud funny, Runaway Train is a wild journey of a bygone era and a portrait of a one-of-a-kind teenage girl trying to find herself again the only way she knows how.
Stone Temple Pilots
Forget what anyone tells you about the bus in L.A. Even though I’d been given Kristen’s old car and got my license at sixteen, a car is no bueno when you’re high as the sky; but the bus has oodles of various souls from all over the city mashed together on a highway moving a mile every ten minutes. I love the feel of all these strangers forced to associate with one another, something that barely exists due to L.A.’s isolated car culture. We travel in boxes here, shut-in and refusing to connect; I’m the poster child for this anti-social behavior. And since I’d never risk getting a DUI and losing my teal blue Hyundai Excel—my lifeline, my means of escape if ever need be—the bus becomes my primary transport when inebriated. So I leave Winter and Jeremy flailing around in the alleyway by the Viper Room because I’m jonesing for a sandwich, have nil cash with me, and want to go home and blast some STP Core with the new CD I’d pilfered from the local Sam Goody.
Reaching home in the middle of a Tuesday when I should’ve been at school, Laurel Canyon has an eerie quality of a Sci-Fi tale where a UFO zapped up all its suburban citizens. Not that the neighborhood is a pillar of action normally, but during the week it’s deader than dead, dead, dead. I check my eyes in my compact mirror to make sure they aren’t mega bloodshot, then take a sniff of my Alice and Chains T-shirt in case it smelled of pot. I realize I’m being stupid,
since the ‘rents are both at work. Honestly, they’d even be clueless if they caught me swimming in a pool filled with vodka.
When I step inside, electricity tinges in the air, the sensation of a television being left on. I make my way into the kitchen and throw together a salami and American cheese sandwich, heavy on the mayo like my thunder thighs need it. I shovel the sandwich in my mouth, practically forgetting how to chew as I kick off my Doc Martins and leap up the stairs like I’m a kid playing hopscotch. Walking down the hallway, I keep my eyes away from Kristen’s room immortalized by my folks, the door firmly shut. The last time I’d been inside was that Halloween day Kristen died, never summoning up enough courage to re-enter.
A squeaking sound echoes down the hallway. At first, I think it’s a mouse, but the squeaking gets louder, followed by moans and a cringe-inducing oh God, oh God, oh Godddddddddddd that couldn’t belong to anyone but my mother who had the low bass voice of a sportscaster. Do my parents seriously meet up for lunchtime quickies when they figure I wouldn’t be around? The thought makes me want to gag my salami. I immediately want to tell Kristen; we only bonded in making fun of the ‘rents, but I quickly eject that solemn idea. It makes zero sense that my parents could be copulating, since they barely say boo to one another. Since Kristen’s passing, my dad spends even more time at work, sometimes sleeping on a cot in his office. We’d been to family therapy a bunch where Mom and Dad argued about how much they reminded each other of Kristen, since she’s a combination of both their features: Mom’s long, snooty nose and luscious hair, Dad’s wide-set eyes and strong chin. Hello, I want to say, what about me? I’m still here and if you two would get your heads out of your asses for one freaking second, you’d realize that I just lost someone too!
So it couldn’t be Mom and Dad bumping uglies. Then I imagine Mom alone with a vibrating friend, too disgusting to even picture for one second. I start to back away when I hear, “Luanne, Luanne, Luanne,” from a voice that’s Definitely. Not. My. Father’s!
“Oh Roggggggger,” my mom shrieks, reaching a climax as she cooes the barfy name of our sad sack, duck-footed, pot-bellied, comb-over neighbor Roger Ferguson who always has food stuck in his teeth and would ask me to pull his finger at backyard grill-outs. Ferguson’s divorced, has two little shits that only live with him on the weekends, and a giant chow chow named Shirley who resembles him and takes dumps the size of small logs on our front lawn.
Had I not been high, I might’ve kept backing out of the house and not confronted the filthy act happening a few steps away, but instead I march into my room, throw STP’s Core into my stereo system and crank up “Sex Type Thing” loud enough to shake the walls. Screams follow from my mother’s room and then I meet the two gross lovebirds outside in the hallway: Roger Ferguson trying to cover up his unmentionables with a floral blanket and failing, and my mother in my dad’s goddamn bathrobe, the picture-perfect image of a true homewrecker.
“Nico!” she screeches. “What are you doing home?”
“Oh no,” I snap back. “I am not the one in trouble here. What are you doing home, you jezebel?”
She slaps me across the cheek, the sting a throbbing reminder of her infidelity. We stare at each other in shock, both amazed at how cruel we could be. Ferguson slips around us, clearly wanting no part of our tête-à-tête.
“And with Mr. Ferguson!” I yell, loud enough so he could still hear, as his flabby body huffs and puffs down the hallway. “He looks like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man minus the ascot.”
“Turn down that music, Nico, those awful, awful sounds.”
I follow her into my room where she jabs at the stereo buttons to no avail. Finally, she lifts the system from the table and launches it to the floor.
“What the hell, Mom?”
A crack develops down the center as the music murmurs to a sad finish.
“That’s like five hundred dollars, you crackhead.”
She goes to slap me again, but I block it, clearly stronger. Mom’s kinda skinny with tiny baby wrists.
“I will not have you talking to me that way,” she says, crying now, her face the color of a red pepper.
“Does Dad know?”
She pulls at her graying hair that she’d given up dyeing since Kristen’s death. She chomps her teeth that she’s taken to grinding. Her eyes are red, her face washed out and lifeless. I should hug her right there. I should’ve hugged her months ago when Kristen died, but I don’t want to be comforted by her, or by Dad, or by anyone. I’ve wanted so much space that I create a fortress. At least to her credit, she respects that.
“Nico,” she says, quietly. “You don’t understand. I…”
Her body begins heaving like the scene in Alien when the alien bursts from the guy’s body. She sits on the edge of my bed and closes Dad’s bathrobe to her neck.
“Your father and I haven’t been doing well, as I’m sure you know.”
“That doesn’t mean you should spread your legs to the neighborhood fatty!”
She cuts me with her eyes, too exhausted to silence my foul mouth. But I enjoy being deplorable. The more terrible I act, the less chance anyone else might try to console me.
She cries more, fat gobs that plop on her thighs.
“Save it,” I say, charging out of the room. I don’t want to deal with her. I need Winter and Jeremy, the only people in my life that didn’t make me want to smash my fist into the wall.
I could hear her calling out my name, desperate for reconciliation, but I wouldn’t give her the satisfaction. Dad may have been a ghost, but he’s her ghost, and he never hid his desire for financial success. He pays for our Laurel Canyon four bedroom, and for their BMW, and gives Mom anything she wants to justify his absence. He’s cold and distant, but he’s never been any different. She thought she could change him, but guess what lady? Men don’t change. I’m just sixteen-and-a-half and I could already tell her that. Jeremy is gay and no contact with my vagina was ever gonna change things. Dad is aloof and would be until the day he dropped. That doesn’t mean you go and screw around on him with the first penis that bounces your way.
I don’t have time to wait for the bus and Winter’s house is only a mile or so away so I get in Kristen’s car and drive, high and mighty, breaking all speed limits, practically begging for a cop to pull me over and put me out of my fucking misery.
Lee Matthew Goldberg is the author of the novels THE ANCESTOR, THE MENTOR, THE DESIRE CARD and SLOW DOWN. He has been published in multiple languages and nominated for the Prix du Polar. His first YA series RUNAWAY TRAIN is forthcoming in 2021 along with a sci-fi novel ORANGE CITY. After graduating with an MFA from the New School, his writing has also appeared in The Millions, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, LitReactor, Monkeybicycle, Fiction Writers Review, Cagibi, Necessary Fiction, the anthology Dirty Boulevard, The Montreal Review, The Adirondack Review, The New Plains Review, Underwood Press and others. He is the editor-in-chief and co-founder of Fringe, dedicated to publishing fiction that’s outside-of-the-box. His pilots and screenplays have been finalists in Script Pipeline, Book Pipeline, Stage 32, We Screenplay, the New York Screenplay, Screencraft, and the Hollywood Screenplay contests. He is the co-curator of The Guerrilla Lit Reading Series and lives in New York City. Follow him at LeeMatthewGoldberg.com
Grand Prize: Signed paperback copy of Runaway Train! (US only)
Grand Prize: Signed paperback copy of Runaway Train! (US only)
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