2nd Place Winner, “A Character Study”
By Robert Pierce
Artwork by Coe MacFarlane
Jeremy Rabe sat at the table in his apartment, hunched over a cold cup of black tea. He
was a tall, pale man, in his forties, with shaggy black hair and a wispy beard. And he was dying.
He had refused treatment, content to sit in his apartment until he passed away. In Jeremy’s eyes,
there was no use prolonging the inevitable.
Bright beams of sunlight, refracted by the dusty glass of the window on the opposite wall,
dappled the filthy floor of the room, the empty takeout boxes littered around, the crumpled EMT
outfit which Jeremy had torn off and kicked into a corner after he quit his job seven weeks
earlier. He flinched at the shrill whistle of a train passing by on the tracks out back of the
Brookwood Apartments. They were no more than thirty feet away, close enough that he could
watch the engine lope past through the window, its bright yellow color washed out and faded to a
forlorn pastel after years spent underneath the sun. He snatched a tissue from the box beside him
and coughed into it, with the sharp hacking sound of something shattering inside him. When he
brought it away from his mouth, it was flecked with thick blood.
Jeremy’s laptop was on the table beside him, with an open browser. Out of the eight tabs,
one showed the delivery menu from Ignatius’ Italian, and another showed his empty email inbox.
The remaining six all related to train accidents and deaths, the causes and effects, and survivors’
accounts. Jeremy had already read through each of them multiple times, and each article hurt
worse than the last. He just wanted to know if he could have done something for the man who
died on those train tracks. Reading and rereading those articles had eaten away all of the last
night, and Jeremy was just about to click back to the first one for another run when a sharp rap at
the door startled him out of his chair.
He shuffled to the door and opened it without bothering to look through the peephole.
The minute he swung it wide, Jeremy felt a chill trickle down his spine. On the other side stood
an ancient, straight-backed woman. It was his new neighbor, Marion; she had just moved into the
apartment next to his. Apparently, she had business to take care of in Loftington, but she
wouldn’t elaborate. The lines traced on her face made it look as if she was wearing a mask, and
she wore a simple black dress with a long shawl. She was extremely thin. But most striking was
the long walking cane which she gripped in her left hand. It was wooden, a speckled dirt brown,
and made with intricate detail. The bottom was carved into a claw, which bit into the
floorboards, and the top, held tightly in Marion’s brittle fingers, looked like the long, curved
head of a scythe.
She quickly glanced over Jeremy, and the ratty bathrobe and boxers he wore, and
cackled. “I see you haven’t made any improvements since yesterday.”
Jeremy grunted. Marion had introduced herself the day before, and, when she saw the
state of his apartment, declared that the next day they would work together to clean it up. Jeremy
couldn’t bring himself to refuse. Truthfully, he thought some company would be nice.
The woman peered past him into the room. “Bless your heart, boy, I can’t believe you’ve
been living like this! Come on now, let’s get to work.” She whacked Jeremy’s leg sharply with
the cane, causing him to yelp, and pushed past him through the doorway, scowling at the heaped
trash laying around. Her eyes lingered for a slight moment on the old EMT outfit.
“Look, Marion, you don’t have to do this. I’m fine, and it doesn’t really matter anyway.”
“Oh, quiet, it won’t take long. Besides, I’m an old woman, I need some company. And I
think you do, too.” She shot him a pointed stare. “Now where’s your trash bags?” She groaned
and leaned down to grab some old pizza boxes from the floor, tossing them onto the table.
Jeremy sighed. “In the cabinet.” He coughed and sat down at the table again. “Well, then
thank you, Marion.”
“Oh you’re very welcome, sweetie! I should be thanking you for putting up with me,
really. I always tend to barge into things. But good manners don’t go unpunished!” She chirped.
Jeremy just nodded.
For the next two hours, she cleaned and worked, and her company began to lift Jeremy’s
spirits, just a little bit. Since he left his job, he hadn’t talked to anyone besides his sister, Alice
(who lived on the other side of the country with a family and a home-run business), and the
annoyingly chipper Ignatius’ delivery driver who always came to the Brookwood. And
eventually Marion even managed to pull him away from the laptop and convince him to do some
cleaning himself. She could tell from the shallow laughter lines etched in his face that he hadn’t
always been so downcast, and as they worked, she was glad to see him perk up slightly.
They continued to cut through the dirt and clutter of Jeremy’s apartment until Marion
carefully picked up the EMT outfit and spread it on the table, with a look on her face that seemed
to him almost like reverence. “Now Jeremy, this doesn’t seem like the sort of thing you should
leave laying around. Y’all do a lot for this world. Why don’t we clean it up a bit? I’ve got an
ironing board if you don’t.”
Jeremy put the glass he was washing down on the countertop and walked over. Wistfully,
he lifted one of the sleeves and ran a finger over it. “No, it’s fine. I don’t need it anymore. I quit
the job.” Jeremy tried to keep his voice from shaking, but there was no way Marion couldn’t hear
the sullen regret that tinged his words.
“Hey, now.” She placed a hand on his shoulder. For some reason, it felt as if her touch
chilled Jeremy to the bone, but it was a soothing cold. It seemed to spread from her fingers
across Jeremy’s body, dulling the aches and pains of disease. “Just because something’s old,
doesn’t mean you shouldn’t keep it nice. Tell you what, I need to go soon anyway, I’ll take this
and work on it a bit for you, alright? It was lovely, Jeremy. I’ll be back tomorrow!” Marion
grabbed the outfit and swept out of the door, her walking cane clacking on the floor with every
other step. And once again, Jeremy was alone in his room. He closed his laptop and stepped over
to the window.
In the dark, he could see the train tracks dimly glistening with moonlight. The shadowy
trees swayed in the wind. It reminded Jeremy of when that man walked through the trees and laid
his neck on the tracks, eight weeks ago. Jeremy saw him from the window, dragging his feet
forward as the branches clutched at him, as if the world itself tried to hold him close, stop him
from moving towards those railroad ties. As Jeremy raced from his room, a train whistle started
blowing frantically, louder and louder the closer he got. The screech of the train’s brakes cut
through the air around the Brookwood Apartments like a keening dirge. By the time Jeremy
reached the man, he was dead. There wasn’t much blood. The heat of the brakes, the friction
between train and track had cauterized the man’s neck. And suddenly, when he was too late for
someone in his own backyard, all Jeremy’s work as an EMT seemed so pointless.
– – – –
The next morning, Marion brought the outfit back, cleaned and pressed, looking better
than it ever had when Jeremy had worn it. When she rapped on the door, Jeremy pulled it open.
He looked paler than the day before, and as soon as she stepped inside, he swung the door closed
and stumbled away, collapsing onto a chair at the table. Marion laid the clothes out in front of
him before sitting down herself.
“There. Looks better, don’t it?”
Jeremy reached out and teased a sleeve between his fingers. “It really does. Thank you,
Marion.” He cracked a thin smile. “I may not use it anymore but it’s nice to see it’s still in good
Marion patted his arm. The chill struck Jeremy once more. “Sentiment tends to stick with
us. Mind if I make some coffee?”
Jeremy grabbed a tissue and coughed. “No, go ahead.”
She stood, leaning on her cane, and walked to the counter. “So Jeremy, if you don’t mind
the question, why did you quit?”
Jeremy sighed. He had been wondering that himself lately, and it wasn’t an easy answer.
The coffee machine had already started to whir before he responded. “It’s just a job that wears on
you, you know? I loved being able to help people, but I couldn’t take seeing the deaths
anymore.” Which was mostly true. It wasn’t the death itself that he minded as much as the
thought that no matter how many lives he saved, there would always be some he couldn’t. And
no matter how many long shifts he worked, how much effort he gave, there was no way Jeremy
could help everyone.
Marion nodded. “Oh dearie, I can only imagine. I hope, though, that if you get the chance
to help someone, you still will. You’re a good person. And there might be people that need your
help.” Carefully, she stepped over to the table and sat downwith a slight frown on her face,
lightly closing her eyes as if waiting for something.
As they sat in silence, a shining silver engine was rumbling down the tracks towards
Brookwood, carrying passengers towards Tennessee. It was a serpent of cool, brilliant steel,
perfect on the outside, except for one small flaw in the wheels. And as it trundled forwards, the
wheels held together as long as they could, until in the bend right beside the apartments, they
shook themselves from the axle and the train leaped from the tracks like a great gleaming tiger,
carving ruts through the grass and bearing down on the Brookwood Apartments.
When it smashed through the walls, Jeremy’s entire apartment shook. He jerked in terror
and crashed to the floor, while Marion sat and listened to the wailing grind of metal punching
through the building. When the first screams began to rise, she bolted for the door with uncanny
speed, her cane flailing in her hand. Jeremy staggered to his feet and ran after her.
The back of the Brookwood was a disaster zone, with passenger cars overturned and
scattered across the lawn like a child’s old, played-out toys. The train had torn into the side of the
apartments, ripped open the stone and wood. The scattered shards of shining metal were like
pieces of bone sticking out of a jagged wound. And in the faces of the people scattered around,
Jeremy could see the man he couldn’t save, lying on the tracks, with the glassy eyes of a
mannequin. He froze. The noise of the tragedy overwhelmed him, filling his head. Until Marion
lashed his legs with her cane and yelled in his ear.
“No time to be losing your religion now, boy! Get moving, people need help!”
The next hours were a blur, and yet there was something within all the frantic,
horrendous confusion which Jeremy would never forget. As the Brookwood residents, those who
could, came together to help, as Jeremy barked orders and advice and moved those who could be
moved, left those who needed to be left, pulled every last technique, every last comfort from his
training, Marion stepped among the disaster and debris with a single-minded focus. Even among
his former coworkers, Jeremy had never seen anyone so determined to do their best for the
injured. And yet, he felt sorry for her. Every single person she found, no matter how much aid
she tried to give, slipped away while she kneeled beside them and clutched their hand.
– – – –
When emergency services had arrived and taken over, Marion went looking for Jeremy.
He was out by the train tracks, kicking at the rails. The leaves crunched underneath her feet as
she walked up beside him.
“People just seem so fragile sometimes, Marion.” His voice was choked, and tear tracks
streaked his face.
“It’s just how it is.” They stood in silence for a minute, until Marion turned to face him.
“Jeremy, can I ask another possibly rude question?”
“How do you feel about your own death?”
“Helpless.” Jeremy could tell from Marion’s lack of a response that the certainty of his
answer had stunned her. “I mean, not because I’m going to die, I always knew that would happen
eventually. But I wanted more time. More time to help people. I really did love my job.” He
sighed. “Marion, are you who I think you are?”
“Yes, dearie, you’re a smart boy, I imagine I am.”
“Are you here for me, too?”
She shook her head. “Not quite yet. Not unless you want to go now. My business here is
done.” Suddenly, she laughed and whacked the back of Jeremy’s legs with her cane. “So you’d
better cheer up, boy! And listen close. You’ve got a good heart, and there’s one way you can
keep helping people for a long, long time. Help the way I do!”
It took a minute for her words to register in Jeremy’s thoughts. “Like… you do?” Just a
little bit, his chest seemed to swell with a hope he hadn’t felt in too long.
“Yep!” Marion grinned. “Make sure you’re certain, though, dearie. I’d hate to be feeling
guilty over pulling you into this.”
“What do I have to do?”
“Oh, we’ll have time for that later. Right now, all you have to do is grab my hand.” She
reached forward and held her hand open wide. “I think you know what that means already.”
Jeremy took one last, searching look at the Brookwood. He pulled his phone out of his
pocket and sent a message to his sister, wishing her well. Then he took Marion’s hand.
– – – –
Two thousand miles from Loftington, an old woman sat in a rocking chair on the porch of
Dino Claw Convenience, just outside of Stockell, Arizona. The store was closed for good. No
one besides the old woman had been there in a month and a half, but now there was someone
else on the porch, grasping a cup of black tea and leaning on the railing. It was a tall, pale man,
in his forties, with shaggy black hair and a wispy beard. A long walking cane, the handle
fashioned in the shape of a scythe, stood beside him. As the old woman’s eyes drifted closed, the
man reached out, grasped her hand and held on tight. Because everybody dies, but no one dies