next chapter show table of contents previous chapter
go home
make text bigger make text smaller

The Dead Mouse of Love

“Get down!” Conner shouted. 

He reached out his hands and yanked me and Pippen to the floor. Tan grabbed the horn lever and let out one quick blast before he dropped to the floor beside us. With a deafening crash, we slammed into the truck. The death scream of tortured steel filled the cab. A tire smashed into the windshield, cracking it like a spider web. Then the screeching stopped. I raised my head a bit. We were still racing along as if nothing had happened. Cautiously, I got up and looked in front of us. Only the left windshield was cracked, but I couldn’t see through either window; they were covered with bright orange dust. I leaned out the side window so I could see. There was nothing in front of us. I looked to the rear, and saw the truck lying in pieces on both sides of the track. 

“What was in that truck?” I asked. “There’s orange powder all over everything!”

Pippen licked her lips. “I taste…Doritos!”

Obviously I’d picked the brake lever that was supposed to control the brakes on the train cars, which we didn’t have. I found the right lever and brought the locomotive to a stop. I left the engine idling. Pippen scrambled out with the Windex to clean the cheesy stuff off the windshield, while I climbed down to the ground and inspected the front of the locomotive. Other than the cracked front window, the only injury was some scraped paint.

I patted the dragon on her nose. “You’re a tough old girl!”


When I climbed back into the cab, Tan was fizzing with excitement. “I want to be an engineer now!”

“You’re going to give up being a doctor and study engineering like me?” I asked.

“No, I mean a real engineer. I want a turn driving the train!”

“I’ve got infinitely more experience driving a train than you do,” I said.

“I have fewer train wrecks on my record.”

I let Tan drive while I tried to figure out the rest of the controls. Pippen set about exploring and disappeared down the narrow stairway in front. She popped back up a minute later.

“There’s a bathroom down there! Do you think we could get the toilet to work?” She climbed up on the back chair, balancing on it to reach a metal rack on the wall. “Hey Callie! I think I found a manual for this thing.”

“We had a manual?” I yelped.

I grabbed the book away from Pippen. It was a large paperback with “American Railworks DC-700 Operator’s Manual” on the front. I leafed through the grease-stained pages. “Let’s see…Safety Precautions, Walkthrough Inspection, Brake Systems —that would have been helpful a few minutes ago— ah, Startup Procedures. Zow! We skipped a lot of steps!”

Pippen also found another treasure, a map of railroad routes for the United States. We spread the map out on the floor, and Pippen leaned in and pointed.

“This must be the Mississippi River. Here’s the train bridge that was out, so we’re on this track here. We need to get back to Utah, so pretty soon we’re going to want to make a left turn and get on this other track. How do we turn? There’s no steering wheel.”

I wasn’t sure, so I had Tan slow down as we approached the turnoff. We stopped just in front of the spot where the tracks split, and everyone climbed down to get a closer look. I could see there was a section of track that could shift back and forth to direct trains to the right or left. At the moment, it was directing trains to the right. A black metal pole rose from the side of the track. It had an electric motor at the base, probably operated from a central control miles away. It also had a manual lever, but that was padlocked. 

“We probably should have gone through the engineers’ pockets before we tossed them out,” I said.

Pippen started to get out her tools, but Conner stopped her.

“I’ll pick this lock.”

He slipped his crowbar into the padlock and twisted. It resisted for a second, then the case cracked and the lock popped off. Conner heaved on the rusty lever, and the tracks slid over. We climbed back on board and drove the dragon onto the left track. 

Every few miles, we passed a small town. The scenery wasn’t very pretty since the tracks always took us through the industrial section of town. The dragon was even noisier than Arnold. The wheels thumped on the rail joints, the bushes that grew between the ties made ripping noises as we tore through them, and the huge engine thundered behind us. We practically had to yell to hold a normal conversation. It was almost as bad as dinner with the clan!

Whenever we approached a track junction, I had to slow down to make sure the switch was in the right direction. After a while I discovered that most of the switches had a red and white flag on top that showed which way it was currently switched, so I didn’t have to slow down if it was already taking us the right direction. I was just starting to think getting home was going to be easy when we saw another train on the track in front of us. Tan slowed to a stop. 

“Oh well, I guess we walk home now,” said Pippen.

I wasn’t ready to give up that easily. There were two sets of tracks side by side here, and the other track was clear. I showed Tan how to switch the locomotive to reverse, and we backed up until we reached the nearest track branch. Conner got down and heaved the switch lever over so we could drive onto the other track. In a few minutes, we were past the other train.

Soon we had it down to a system. Drive along the track until we get to a stopped train, back up to the previous switch, then go around. There was time in between switches, so I got my notebook out. My notebook and the stack of printouts from Jon’s email had survived the dunking in the river, thanks to the garbage bag, but the notebook was starting to look pretty battered. Remembering what Conner had said last night, I fixed the survival manual again.

Chapter 1: The Most Important Thing to Have in a Survival Situation

A lighter.

A survival kit.

A charged car battery.

A sharp knife.

The will to survive.

We ate stew out of cans for lunch. Pippen said she wasn’t hungry. After lunch she lay on the pile of blankets in the middle of the floor. I realized she hadn’t said anything sarcastic for almost an hour. I knelt down next to her. “Are you all right?” 

“Don’t feel so good,” she admitted.

I touched her face and snatched my hand back. “Tan! Pippen’s really hot! What does that mean?”

Tan let Conner drive, and brought his new medical bag over. He put a hand to her forehead. “She’s got a fever. She’s sick.”

Pippen looked panicked. “Sick? Did I get infected with Fixer when we were at the lab? Don’t let Fixer get me, Tan!” 

“It’s not Fixer,” Tan reassured her. 

“Are you sure it’s not Fixer?”

“Positive. Jon’s temperature went down, not up. How’s your leg? We haven’t changed the bandage for a while.”

Pippen moved a blanket aside, and I could see a dark red stain on the leg of her yellow pants. Tan whistled. “That’s probably a bad thing.”

He got a small pair of scissors out of his medical bag and cut a slit up Pippen’s pant leg. “I just got those!” Pippen complained weakly.

Even before Tan got the bandage off, I could see it was bad. The wound on Pippen’s leg was puffy and oozing blood and grulk. “Looks like it’s gotten infected,” Tan said. “Maybe from when you got bitten by the fish, or when you were under the floor in the dungeon or when we got dumped in the river. I picked up some ibuprofen at Walmart; that’ll bring down the fever.”

Pippen swallowed the pills and water Tan gave her and settled back on the blankets. When he was done changing her bandage, I pulled Tan aside and spoke just loud enough for him to hear me over the train noise. “Are you sure those drugs are still good?”

“Well, they might have lost a bit of potency, but I know ibuprofen hasn’t gone toxic.”

“How do you know?” I asked.

Tan grinned cheerfully. “I test drugs on my rats, and watch to see if they die!” Then his smile faded. “But if Pippen’s immune system can’t fight off the infection, she might need antibiotics. I’ve got several different types back home that I know I can trust, but I didn’t find any of those at Walmart.”

“What if she can’t fight off the infection?” I asked.

“Then we need to get Pippen home fast,” Tan answered. “We could take shifts and drive all night. That should get us home in another day or two, as long as nothing else happens to us.”

Based on our quest so far, I could calculate the odds of nothing else happening to us.

Soon we were stopped by another train. This one sat facing us on the same track. But this time, there was only one track. We were blocked.

“Are we going to have to find a truck now?” asked Tan.

“A truck won’t help us,” I said. “We still have to get past the landslide and the blown-up road. That’s why I got the dragon. The train track goes down the same canyon as the road we came on, but on the opposite side of the river, and it has its own tunnel.”

“Ah, very clever!” said Tan. “But how do we get past this train?”

I checked the train map. “We passed a side track about two miles back. We can tow this train back there.”

I had Tan drive the dragon slowly toward the head locomotive in the other train while I watched from the ground. The couplings bumped into each other and clamped together. I made sure the coupling was locked, then I hooked up the brake hose. Following the manual, I set the valves so our locomotive controlled the brakes on the other train. We climbed back in and waited several long minutes while the air compressor in our locomotive pumped up the brake lines in the other train. Then I switched our direction lever to “Reverse,” and eased the throttle to one. The engine revved, but nothing happened. I tried two, then three, but the train only creaked a bit. I dropped the throttle back to idle.

“Something’s wrong. Maybe the brakes didn’t release.” I said.

Tan and Conner and I got down and walked along the train. The train brake shoes pressed directly onto the steel wheels, so it was easy to see where the brakes had released properly. After five cars, we found a set of brakes that were still pressed against the wheel.

“Conner, let me see that crowbar.” I wedged the crowbar in and pried, but nothing happened.

Conner took the crowbar back and rolled his eyes. “Girls!” He braced his foot against the wheel and yanked on the crowbar with both hands. With a creak, the brake shoe pulled away from the wheel.

“Probably this one was rusted,” I said. “Now we need to check the rest of the train.”

The three of us looked down the line of cars. The train must have been half a mile long.

I started to walk to the next car, but Conner stopped me. “This is Guy Stuff. Tan and I can do it. You go back and take care of Pippen.”

I was about to say something clever and devastating about Conner’s Neanderthal attitude, but then I remembered he probably cared a lot about what I thought of him. I’d wanted to talk to Pippen alone anyway. “You two have a nice walk,” I said, and headed back to the cab.

Pippen was sitting up in her nest of blankets.

“How are you feeling?” I asked.

“Better,” Pippen said. “I think the pills are working. Where are the boys?”

“Og and Ulk are going for a mile walk,” I said. “Which is good because I need to ask you some questions about…relationships.”

“Pull up a blanket,” Pippen said cheerfully. “Doctor Pippen will solve your problem.”

I sat down. “Well, I think…” I took a deep breath. “I think Conner’s in love with me!”

Pippen threw herself back on the blankets and kicked her feet in the air. “I’m free! I’m free!”

That was not the reaction I’d expected. “What are you talking about?” I asked, a bit annoyed. 

“Conner threatened us! He said he’d pound us if anyone told you! But you figured it out yourself, so now I’m free!”

“Wait a minute,” I said, with a sinking feeling. “You said ‘us’?” How many people know about this?”

“Well, now that you know, I’d say–” Pippen counted on her fingers, “–nineteen people.”

Oh, spack! “This is not funny, Pippen,” I said. “This is a disaster! Conner’s in love with me, but I don’t love him, and I can’t tell him because I can’t stand to hurt his feelings!”

“Oh, I see,” said Pippen. She settled back down and straightened her blankets out. “How do you know you don’t love Conner?”

“Huh? Because when you’re in love with a boy, you feel the flames of passion when he’s near you, and your heart leaps like a frightened deer. When he’s away from you, you pine in agony for his return. I never feel that way about Conner.”

Pippen frowned at me. “Callie, have you been reading Bonni’s romance novels?”

“Uh, maybe two or three,” I admitted. “I quit reading them after I noticed they all have the same plot. Maybe they aren’t the best reference manual, but I wanted to understand what love feels like.”

“See, there’s the problem,” said Pippen. “Romance-book love is for people who’ve just met. We already know everyone in the world. It’s hard to get all passiony about a boy when you know he picks his nose when he thinks nobody’s watching. That’s why Jon always insists we aren’t a family. Because it’s icky to think you’re going to have to grow up and marry your brother!” Pippen tapped her chin thoughtfully. “Let’s try something else. How do you feel about Conner?”

“Well, he’s a great big dorp,” I began. “But he always knows what to say to build up my confidence when I start to doubt myself. When I’m with Conner, I feel…comfortable.”

“I see,” said Pippen in her best psychoanalyst’s voice. “Go on. How well do you know Conner?”

“Better than anyone else. He’s my best friend! His favorite color is gray and his favorite food is pine nuts because they taste like fall. His eyes are brown, but if you get really close, you can see little green and yellow flecks too. I know he loves war movies, and the smell of wet dirt, and the way moonlight sparkles on snow. He pretends he doesn’t have feelings, but that’s just a shell he wears. He feels proud when he brings home meat for the clan, but he feels sad when he kills an animal. Even though he hasn’t cried since we were little, I can still tell when he’s hurting inside. That’s why I can’t tell him I don’t love him! I’d rather die than hurt him!”

Pippen stared at me. 

“Zow!” she said. “Just…zow!”

After a moment, she pointed up to the metal rack on the wall. “Callie, I can solve your problem. Would you please get me that book?”

I have a lot of faith in books, but I wasn’t sure how Pippen was going to solve a relationship problem with a locomotive operator’s manual. I got the manual down.

“Come closer, please,” Pippen said weakly. “I’m a sick little girl.”

I sat down next to her and handed her the paper manual. Pippen rolled it into a tight cylinder. Then she whacked me on the head with it. Bright lights flashed in my eyes. For a sick little girl, she hit really hard! “Ow! What was that for?”

“Callie, you peahead!” yelled Pippen. “You’re already in love with Conner, you’re just too dense to see it! How long do you think romance-book love lasts? When the ‘flames of passion’ wear off, what’s left? If you’re lucky, by then you’ve learned to care about the other person. That’s what real love is. Caring about someone else more than you care about yourself. You’ve already got that! And you’re not just in love, you’ve got the best kind! You’re in love with your best friend!”

My vision slowly came back into focus. And a few other things came into focus too. Things that had always been there in the background but weren’t clear because I wasn’t looking at them straight on.

Pippen unrolled the manual and smoothed it out. “Well, judging by the goofy smile on your face, you’ve just realized I’m right. Now, what are you going to do about it?”

“Do?” I asked, still a bit stunned.

“You have to tell Conner you love him.” 

“I do?”

“Of course you do!” insisted Pippen. “It’s required!”

“So when Conner comes back in, I’m supposed to throw myself into his arms crying, ‘Oh, Conner, I love you! I love you with every beat of my heart! With every breath I take! I’ve always loved you! But I didn’t actually realize it until two minutes ago.’ And then we kiss passionately.”

Pippen collapsed on the blanket, laughing until tears squeezed out of the corners of her eyes. Then suddenly she stopped and sat up. “Seriously, Callie, I’ll pay you two bags of Swedish Fish if you’ll do that for real when Conner comes back!”

Pippen had Swedish Fish? I hadn’t tasted Swedish Fish since… “No!” I said firmly. “If I’ve learned anything from hanging around the boys all the time, it’s that they don’t like to admit they have feelings. They think it makes them look weak or something. Conner especially. That’s why he didn’t want me to know. Anyway, there’s no kissing until we’re sixteen. Rule 7, subsection 8, paragraph 2.”

“But Conner’s been in love with you for four years! He deserves to at least know that you know, you know?”

Pippen was right, but I’m terrible at dealing with people. If I tried to talk to Conner, I knew it would go wrong. It would come out all sappy and he’d be grossed out, or he’d misinterpret what I said and it would ruin our friendship. If we were cats, I could just give him a dead mouse and he’d understand, but there weren’t any mice in the locomotive. “I’ll think of something,” I said.

At that moment, a warbling tone sounded in the cab. “What’s that?” Pippen asked.

“I have no idea. We’re not even moving. Let me see the book.” The annoying alarm kept going as I leafed through the manual. “Here it is,” I said.

Vigilance Control (optional). While the locomotive is in motion, the Vigilance Control will sound a two-tone warning if no changes to the controls have occurred in the last two minutes. If the Vigilance Button on the Control Console is not pressed within one minute of the alarm sounding, a penalty brake will be applied. The Vigilance Control will also shut down the engine if it has been idling for more than fifteen minutes.

“That explains why the dragon hadn’t run out of fuel!” I said, pleased to have solved the mystery. “After fifteen minutes, the engine shuts down automatically!”

“But, Callie, I thought you said we couldn’t start the engine again, because our flashlight batteries burned up!”


I scrambled to the engineer’s control panel, desperately reading the labels. “What was that button called?” I yelled to Pippen.

Pippen grabbed the manual. “It’s called the ‘Vigilance Button’!”

“There’s no button with that name here!”

The alarm shifted to a faster warble. There were probably only seconds left before the engine shut down. 

“Look again!” said Pippen. “It has to be there!”

“I’ve looked at all the button labels twice!” I shouted in frustration. “There’s nothing here called ‘Vigilance Button’!”

“Well, if you can’t find anything with that name, look for something without a name!” hollered Pippen.

I looked again. There was one yellow mushroom-head button in the corner with no label at all. I smacked it hard. The alarm silenced. The engine was still running. I slumped back down on the pile of blankets next to Pippen.

“That was good thinking,” I told her. “I’m going to make you an honorary engineer!”

“Oh, it was just average genius,” said Pippen modestly.

The boys stomped up the metal stairway and into the cab. “We got all the brakes loose,” Tan said. “Did you get bored without us?”

“Oh, were you gone?” asked Pippen.

I got into the engineer’s seat. This time I shoved the throttle up to four. A series of jolts rippled down the train as our locomotive pulled out the slack in each coupling. Then slowly the entire train began to inch backward along the track. The dragon growled and pulled, and squeaking reluctantly, the train came after her.

We pulled the train back onto the side track, then we unhooked and took our locomotive further back until we got to another junction where we could switch back to the main track. This involved a lot of going the wrong direction, and a lot of Conner climbing up and down to move switch levers, but eventually the track ahead of us was clear, and we were on our way home again.

I explained to Tan and Conner about the vigilance button and Tan took another shift driving. It was getting dark, so I found the switch for the front headlights and the beams lit the track for a thousand feet in front of us. Pippen settled back in her blanket nest and was asleep in seconds. Conner spread some blankets on the floor in the back and sat down, leaning against the back wall. I sat down next to him. Then I reached over and took his hand. I gave his hand a gentle squeeze. Conner looked into my eyes, surprised. Then he let out a deep breath that sounded like he’d been holding it in for four years, and he squeezed my hand back. I leaned my head on his shoulder and closed my eyes. Conner was quiet, but this time I could tell it was the “I’m perfectly happy” kind of quiet.