The temperature dropped,” Stella said, “and snow was coming down hard—no, not up or down, more horizontal— and snow was blowing up from the tracks.
Sometimes it was so thick all I could see was my reflection in the window, but every once in a while, when the wind changed direction, flakes stopped and scattered like they were, I don’t know, confused, and there would be an opening, a slot, a sort of peephole, and I could spot a telephone pole, a tree, a roof, a parked car.
“We were passing by a small town, going very fast, I think, the train rocking and trembling, the wheels jiggling the way they do—you know, a kind of chattering—and I felt it right through me. It cheered me up a bit to see lit-up houses shining through the dark after miles and miles of greyness and nothing to distract me from it, no one talking or touching my hand.
“Grant was sitting next to me, our arms slightly apart, and his chair was back, his eyes closed, but I don’t think he was sleeping. His lips were pressed together and his jaw was too tight and still, his face not moving at all, not even his nostrils, and his earlobes were red, the way they get when he’s angry. We were going to Montreal for his mother’s birthday, which I was excited about, never having met his parents even though we’d been together more than three years.
“But we weren’t getting along that day, we’d had an argument earlier when we were still in Union Station waiting to board the train. It wasn’t about much at first, just a little thing, which is usually how it goes with us, but then it got bigger. All I said was we should talk more in the evening. He was always coming home tired and then he watched TV or turned on the computer and barely spoke to me. And he said it wasn’t his job to entertain me—he worked hard all day and wanted to relax at night, and if I was bored I should go back to school or find something else to do. But that wasn’t it at all! I was only looking for a way for us to be closer, which is what I said next, but that got him steamed up. We kept on bickering and people in the station were giving us dirty looks like we were ruining the fun they were having standing in line, but nothing I told him could make him see it my way, and by the time we got on board both of us were feeling wronged.
“So there we were on the train together, sitting side by side without touching or speaking, worse even than strangers. It wasn’t a big enough argument to end our relationship, but the way he was being so mean made me wonder why I bothered to stick it out.
“You probably want me to get to the point already,” Stella said, “but I think it’s important that you know what I was thinking when the train ran past the town—because of what happened next—how mad I was, and sad too . . . the train rolling as it went so that I was swaying in my seat, looking out at spots of light and listening to train sounds, hearing that whoosh and a sort of clicking like teeth coming together hard. When the wind slowed down a bit I saw the flashing lights of a crossing ahead and the horn sounded four times, two longs, a short, a long, and then I heard warning bells, the noise exploding like fireworks, then fading away to nothing. Next to me Grant was still turned away toward the aisle, our shoulders almost meeting, his left leg over the right, his eyelids shivering at the sound of hoots and ringing but still stubbornly shut tight.
“By then I was feeling sorry for myself and decided to rattle him, to make him wake up and move, so I shook his arm and told him that he had to get up now, I needed to go to the bathroom—and actually I did, except it wasn’t urgent and I could’ve waited till later, but I wasn’t exactly lying. Generally I try to tell the truth about things because it’s easier that way, but this time I stretched it a bit. I guess I just wanted him to know I was still there.
“So he sat up, blinking straight ahead without looking at me, and I climbed over his stuck-out legs and walked to the back of the car. I slid open a bathroom door and stepped into the tiny room, locked the door behind me and squinted at the mirror. As I watched myself, frowning and pale, a single tear crept down my cheek like a worm, and I felt all alone in the world, which made me a little sick, and I leaned over the sink to spit my heartache into the small bowl. It was like I knew what was coming next, how sorrow and loneliness were going to mangle me, how I would bleed and dry up and hurt would stick to me like a scab.
“But here’s what I’m getting at, the action part,” Stella said, “where things suddenly blow apart . . . how first I heard a thunderclap and everything was shuddering, and the room jerked and flew up and so did I, hitting my head on the ceiling. I tripped from one wall to the next with things punching into me—a handrail, the counter, the door, floor, spears of glass— while all around the room was heaving, snapping into pieces, and it was clear that something really awful was happening. I was dizzy, breathing fast, bruised and weak all over, and what I heard from the other side of the bathroom wall was the groaning and grinding of metal on metal and a roar and crunch like gravel spilling from a dump truck. I knew the train had jumped the track and all I could think of was to cross my arms over my head, crouch down and curl up small.
“Then there was a pause, just a blink or two of stillness, and I was glad I hadn’t been peeing when the train crashed because I wouldn’t want to be found like that, my panties around my knees. I mean, the things you think of during a crisis don’t make sense, they seem so silly afterward . . .
“The car scraped and squealed and finally stopped with a big jolt, and then I heard shouting and the panicky sounds of people in pain—all that screaming and weeping—and I tried to get out of the bathroom but the door was stuck in its frame and shoving hardly moved it, so I had to work a long time using a piece of broken pipe to wedge it open just enough for me to flatten and slip through. By then I was starting to hurt too—my arms sore, my nose bleeding, pain up and down my spine— but I kept going anyway, trying to get back to Grant.
“The car was totally off the rails, leaning to the right and ripped open like a can, a long gash in its left side and a wall torn into strips that looked like—I don’t know what—metal tongues, I suppose, with broken glass and slices of this and that everywhere. At least the car wasn’t completely on its side— though what I saw made me want to run back to the bathroom and hide. There was plastic and twisted scraps of metal all over the place, smashed windows, crushed seats, hats and coats and luggage that had flown out of the overhead bins—some of the bags split apart with clothes hanging out—a coffee pot spilled in a corner and empty shoes.
“There were worse things, if you want to know—people pinned under seats, a woman screwed up with her legs bent backward, and bloody lumps of flesh like what a lion might have chewed on and spat out.
“There were phones and laptops and something rolled under a seat I couldn’t put a name to, a football or volleyball— no, not exactly—but I only looked for an instant.
“The last thing I saw was an almost familiar shirt, tattered and stained red, on a nearly whole body that was flopped across the lap of a bawling passenger, her arms overhead like this was a holdup . . . and then I turned my face away, I’d seen enough. “We’re no better than melons, I thought—thin rinds and squishy inside, so easily sliced up. Growing, ripening, rotting, then we end up a heap of mush oozing back into the ground. Nothing we can do about it, people are dying all the time, but it scares us stupid anyway.
“And then I sort of crossed my eyes to make them un - focus and stopped seeing everything except what was in my mind. I was picturing a snowman with coal eyes, a button nose and corncob mouth who was melting into a puddle, and I started thinking of how you make a snowman from a fist of snow, rolling it and rolling it, the strength it takes, the patience, and how you have to heave the middle snowball onto the bottom one, and then the head onto that . . . and thought of all the snow songs my mother used to sing to me—‘Jingle Bells,’ ‘Sleigh Ride,’ ‘Winter Wonderland’ and other ones you’d know too.
“My mother was a quiet woman, so small and light on her feet that when she walked around the house you wouldn’t even know she was there, but when she sang her voice was loud and strong as a diva’s. When my father still lived with us he’d tell her to shut up, she was giving him a headache, and then she’d drop her voice and whisper songs so only I could hear, which made them very special.
“I guess I’m off topic here but wanted you to know that about her,” Stella said. “It’s something I never said before, but I want you to understand how beautifully my mother sang and how much it meant to me, how important that was . . .
“Well, after that my thoughts turned and I stopped thinking about her and thought about Grant again, wishing we hadn’t argued while waiting in the station. I wished he was still next to me with his eyes closed and his ears red so I could apologize and say how much I loved him and how we shouldn’t fight about unimportant matters but talk things out instead . . . then everything would be okay between us, like before. No—better than before.
“I wished it hadn’t snowed and the roads weren’t icy, so the truck that couldn’t stop and skidded through the crossing gates and was hit by the moving train—its front part, the cab part, smashed by the locomotive and its trailer torn free and spinning into the side of our car and the next one—that never would’ve happened. I wished that the driver got tied up earlier while making a delivery and never even reached the crossing till the train passed, or that we’d sat in different seats, or that I’d never got up to go to the bathroom and Grant wasn’t the only one killed on the train but me too, dead in his arms. That would’ve been the end of it, and I wouldn’t have to keep seeing and hearing what I saw and heard, and later I wouldn’t still be dreaming about it, having all these feelings . . .
“So I stopped partway down the aisle, sat on the floor and spoke to him, to the ball that had rolled half under the seat with its eyes still open, whispering so no one would hear. I said his name and that he ought to close his eyes and rest now and told him I was all right—though I wasn’t really sure of that— just a little banged up with smears on my dress from my bloody nose, cuts and scrapes, but nothing to worry about.
“Sitting there, I thought that Grant didn’t answer because my voice was too low or maybe there was something wrong with his ears because of the accident, because of how loud it was, or else that he was still mad and didn’t want to talk to me, which would’ve been the worst thing.
“I wasn’t thinking he was dead.
“I just waited for him to speak and say he wasn’t angry and soon we’d be in Montreal and I could finally meet his folks, but then I couldn’t wait anymore—my eardrums hurt like the tips of knives were jabbing them, and I slapped my hands over my ears to stop the commotion that was getting worse around me. My arms ached when I reached up so I had to put them down again, and then the noise of everything filled me to bursting—I felt like a cooked sausage breaking out of its skin— and people kept shouting for help, calling to their loved ones, praying at the top of their lungs so you’d think God would answer them, Calm down, I hear you, and all that time the train was hissing, creaking and grunting, and sirens in the background were getting loud and louder still.
“Pain was beating hard in my neck and chest and shoulders, and my back was hurting so bad I couldn’t sit up straight anymore and had to lie flat on the floor and not move another inch, waiting for someone to come along and tell me what to do next.
“I smelled smoke, blood too, and then there were emergency crews with ladders and torches. Two firemen put me on a stretcher and carried me off through a pushed-out window, and I saw a fleet of ambulances and pieces of broken truck littering the snowy track.
“They wrapped me in a blanket and moved me to a farmer’s field somewhere behind the wreck, and snow was falling over me, wet and icy on my face—startling because after riding the train I’d forgotten how cold it was outside—and then a man with kind eyes and a calm way of speaking asked me how I was, and I can’t remember all I said but something about the way that snow feels on your skin . . . and then the firemen lifted me and put me in an ambulance and drove me far away from the train, and I felt a headache starting.
“The next time I saw him, Grant was lying in his coffin in the funeral home, and that’s where I finally got to meet his parents, who were shocked and didn’t say much. His hair was clean and combed back in a way he never wore it, his nose sharp, cheeks rouged, his eyes closed, round as bulbs, and his shirt collar buttoned high, though he hated doing it up like that, and I thought what a handsome guy he was, even-featured, dignified, except for his mouth that didn’t look right anymore, it was orange coloured and too small.
“So then I bent over him and kissed his wide forehead that was cool and smooth as a seashell, kissed his bulging eyelids, his pink cheeks and painted lips, and I whispered I was sorry— Do you understand how sorry I was? Sorrier than he could know.”
“I’m afraid we have to stop now,” Renata said to Stella.
“I’ll see you again on Monday.”From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Benevolence by Cynthia Holz. Copyright © 2011 by Cynthia Holz. Excerpted by permission of Vintage Canada, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.