There were times when Gladys would go to the tracks and think about Michael. This made her feel guilty. She couldn’t help herself. For twenty-five years it had been a place of fond memories. It had only been a place of mourning for one. If she closed her eyes it was twenty-five years ago and they were kids hanging out after school when they were supposed to be at the library. Their lives were simple, innocent, and not yet touched by tragedy. The tracks provided adventure and privacy – a train hadn’t passed through in more than a decade.
Back then, Gladys’ favorite game was the one where she’d pretend to be the damsel-in-distress in a silent movie and Michael the villain. She’d lie across the tracks and he’d pretend to tie her down. Their facial expressions and hand gestures were exaggerated to make up for the lack of sound. They were twelve and Michael didn’t have a mustache yet, but he’d twirl his imaginary one with glee. He also played the hero that would swoop in and cut the ropes with his sword just before the train’s arrival. He had to because a third was never invited. They were outcasts that preferred the company of each other.
The moment she walked through the door with dried leaves in her brown curls and dirt on her jeans, Gladys’ mother knew she’d been at the tracks with Michael.
“You’re asking for trouble, miss. You shouldn’t be alone with a boy in the woods. Bad things can happen. People will talk. But you don’t listen. A hard head makes a soft ass.”
Lauren didn’t listen either. She was hard-headed like her mother. No matter how many times Gladys told her to call if she were going to be late, Lauren wouldn’t. Gladys had warned about taking dangerous short-cuts home from school as it was believed Lauren had done the day she went missing. As one hour late turned into four, Gladys waited for a call that never came before making a call of her own. The community rallied and posters were made. Two days later, Lauren was found a few feet away from the spot where Gladys and Michael used to play.
Gladys never understood why people made memorials at the sites of accidents. She’d drive and shake her head in confusion at wooden crosses, flowers and stuffed animals left at the side of the road where people had lost those they loved. A guard rail, large tree, or steep ditch did not represent their lives, she thought. Why give that place meaning? Why mourn there? Yet, a year after losing her daughter, Gladys found herself visiting the tracks more and more – more than she visited the cemetery. She didn’t bring flowers or teddy bears, but sometimes she’d bring one of Lauren’s favorite books and read aloud for hours.
When she read, she thought of her time there with Michael less. It was as if the sound of her voice kept the memories at bay. But if she paused too long, and allowed herself to get lost in thought, she’d inevitably end up back in time when she was only one year older than Lauren was when she died. She didn’t have to think about her daughter’s pain and fear. She didn’t have to think about Lauren’s body lying in the snow for two days. Instead, she was with her first love and they were racing along the tracks.