After washing her kitchen floor until it gleamed, Hedda sat at the table with her reward—a full glass of apple sherry and a crossword puzzle. But then she heard Harold’s pickup rumble into their attached garage, and his big clumsy feet shuffle toward the kitchen. She gulped the sherry down and hid the empty glass in her lap under the table. She scowled as her husband appeared, dragging a lumpy plastic bag across her freshly washed floor. His white hair rose in clumps and tufts every which way. His bushy gray eyebrows looked like they’d been in a windstorm.
“What did you buy now? And take off your shoes, Harold! You’re tracking in debris!”
“Sorry, Heddy.” He sat on the chair across from her and pulled off his shoes. He squinted at the floor but failed to see any debris. He knew that his 70-year-old eyes weren’t as sharp as they used to be. His eyes were why he’d finally retired last year from accounting for the Norfolk Southern Railroad. His eyes had simply gotten tired of looking at numbers.
“Harold, don’t just leave them there. Put them on the mat in the mud room!”
“Sorry, Heddy.” He hurried his offending shoes to the mud room, but when he returned to the kitchen, Nuzzles, their fat white cat, had settled itself on his chair.
“Off you go, Nuzzy,” Harold said, but when he reached to nudge the cat, it hissed and bit his hand. “Hey!” Harold cried, jerking his hand back. “Bad boy!”
“Harold! Leave Nuzzles be!” Hedda looked at the cat. “You OK, baby?”
Nuzzles blinked its yellow eyes at Harold and hissed again.
Harold sighed. At least this time the cat’s teeth had not punctured his skin. He grabbed the plastic bag. “I’ll be in the basement, Heddy. I found some great stuff at the hobby shop for my village.”
“More junk for that train layout? You’d think after 30 years, you’d have finished it by now!”
“It’s never really finished, Heddy. I’m always finding something to add or change or fix or improve. I just bought—”
“I wish you’d spend as much time fixing up what needs fixing in our real house, Harold.”
Harold sighed. If he had a dollar for every time they’d had this same conversation, he’d be rich as Bill Gates. There really was nothing that needed fixing in their house right now. Nothing, anyway, except those who had a beating heart.
“And I made a big meat loaf for supper, Harold. So I don’t want to find you chomping down there on your noisy junk food, ruining your appetite.”
“Meat loaf, yum!” Harold said, though he didn’t much like Hedda’s meat loaf. He liked fish, but Hedda didn’t like fish, so Hedda never served fish. Fortunately, Harold’s town had the nicest little seafood restaurant managed by Old Gus, who shared Harold’s passion for model railroading. The two of them could talk for hours about layout designs and trains and scratchbuilding and lighting and wiring and circuitry and terrains and scenery.
Old Gus, rumor had it, had spent time in prison for manslaughter. He had the tats on his arms and neck to prove it (he’d once joked to Harold), but Harold only knew him as a gentle old soul whose excellent seafood restaurant was the town’s big draw.
Harold was looking forward to showing Old Gus the stuff he’d just bought at the hobby shop: everything he’d need to add a lake and working waterfall to his layout.
“And Harold, don’t forget our boys are coming for supper tonight. So put on a better shirt, and shave and comb that hair before they get here.”
“The wives and Char-Char coming over, too?”
When Heddy nodded, Harold smiled. He didn’t much care for his two daughters-in-law, but Char-Char, his 5-year-old granddaughter, was his favorite person in the world. Well, he thought as he watched Hedda’s mouth flap out words, maybe Char-Char was his second favorite person.
He sighed as he envisioned that tiny red-haired bakery lady. She’d arrived just last month, and she often sat with a tray of fresh donuts in front of The Bake Shoppe. She always had a smile dimpling her freckled face. She always listened attentively to him, never interrupting, never rolling her eyes (so sparkly and blue), never complaining about his shoes tracking debris.
Yes. Maybe that sweet little bakery gal was fast becoming his favorite person.
He’d have to figure out her name one of these days. Names were so important.
He focused back on his wife’s voice.
“It’s Charlene, not Char-Char,” she said. “No one else calls her that. When you say Char-Char, it sounds like you’re talking about your toy choo-choo train instead of our grandchild.”
“Sorry, Heddy.” He sighed and headed for the basement stairs. “Well, you know where to find me.”
“And stop dragging that bag!” Hedda shouted. “Who knows what crap you have in there scratching up my floors!”
Though it made his back complain, Harold lifted the heavy bag and hurried to the basement stairs.
As soon as he reached the basement, he felt his spirits lift. The basement’s cool, quiet air soothed his skin. The moss-green vinyl floor—which he’d laid himself right after they’d bought the house 40 years ago—was soft on his feet. The white walls—which he’d paneled and painted—were completely free from the clutter Hedda had imposed on the upstairs walls—all her framed needlepoints, her shockingly bright oils of fruits and flowers and butterflies and cats.
But it was the train layout that simultaneously thrilled and soothed Harold’s heart.
It filled the basement’s main room, rising majestically from a vast, curved table Harold had designed and built himself.
His empire—the artistic, working, operating masterpiece that he’d been creating and maintaining for 30 years.
He booted up the computer, pressed a link, and Haroldsville awoke. Streetlights twinkled. The freight train emerged from a tunnel and began its leisurely clackety-clacking along the tracks. It chugged around Haroldsville, passing the steeple church with a working bell, the school and playground filled with children, the little park where mothers sat under trees, babies on their laps, watching their toddlers on swings and slides. When it approached the cluster of tidy homes nestled at the base of a lush, green hill, it blew its whistle, rumbled past the town center busy with shoppers and shopkeepers, and then disappeared back into the tunnel.
Harold nodded. Everything was working just fine. Everything was peaceful, perfect.
Hedda rarely disturbed the basement. Years ago, she’d demanded that he move the laundry room from the basement to the first floor, and he’d used his two-week vacation that year getting it done. He’d hurt his back, which never completely recovered, but it was worth it. In the former laundry room—a separate little room tucked into a corner of the basement—he’d put a recliner, small TV, minifridge stocked with beer, and a basket to hold the salty snacks he loved (and Hedda hated).
The basement was all his.
He gazed upon his creation and saw it was good. Perhaps, he thought, this is how God felt after resting on the seventh day. But, like God, Harold knew he always had more to do. There was no permanent resting. Thank God.
He smiled and set to work planning out his town’s new lake and waterfall.
“Grandpa, are you awake?”
Harold opened his eyes, confused to find himself in his recliner, his granddaughter and son standing in front of him.
“Hey, Char-Char! Of course I’m awake. I was just resting my eyes a bit.”
“You was snoring, Grandpa.” Charlene climbed into his lap and planted a peppermint-scented kiss on his cheek.
“Were snoring, Charlene,” Freddie said. He patted Harold’s shoulder. “How ya doin’, Dad?”
“Doin’ fine, Freddie. I’m adding a lake and waterfall to the layout. Old Gus wants to stock the lake with perch and walleye for serving at his restaurant.”
Freddie frowned and looked out the doorway to where the train layout filled the basement’s main room. Then he looked back at Harold and sighed. “That’s great, Dad. I . . . we . . . Bruce and me both . . . actually gotta talk to you about, uh, you know, all that. Just waitin’ on Bruce to show up.”
“If your brother shows up at all,” Harold said, “I’ll be a monkey’s uncle.”
“Grandpa! Can you wake up Haroldsville?” Charlene climbed off his lap and skipped over to the layout. “Hey, Grandpa, there’s only five donuts now on the bakery lady’s tray. The chocolate one’s gone!”
Harold chuckled and joined his granddaughter by the layout. “Yep. Someone musta eaten it.”
“I betcha it was the boy on the slide, Grandpa. Look! He’s got chocolate frosting around his mouth!”
“So he does,” Harold said. “Well, would you like to say the magic words to wake it up, Char-Char?”
“It’s just electronics that make things happen, Charlene,” Freddie said. “Not magic.”
Harold frowned. “Well, Fredrick, electronics are sort of magical, I’ve always thought.”
“Dad, Erma thinks this magic talk is confusing for Charlene.”
“And what do you think, son?”
“Aw, Dad. Erma and I, we’re the parents. It’s our call, not yours. And I promised Erma I’d explain it all to our daughter.” Freddie pointed. “Look, Charlene. See that circuit board over there?”
“That’s the Magic Train Brain,” Harold said.
Freddie shook his head. “What it is, Charlene, is just a lot of cables, wires, sensors, and other stuff connected to Grandpa’s computer over there against the wall. Grandpa installed software that—”
The front doorbell rang. “That must be Bruce,” Freddie said. “I’ll run up, bring him down. We both gotta discuss a few things with you, Dad.”
Freddie’s left eye twitched and his hands clenched. The boy was nervous about something, Harold realized. He hoped it wasn’t marriage trouble. Erma, Freddie’s wife, not only resembled Hedda with her jet-black curls (though Hedda’s color now depended on monthly visits to the beauty parlor), but she was also tall and block-shaped like Hedda, and her words were often sharp like Hedda’s. Freddie, and Char-Char too, took after him—quick, slim, slight, soft-spoken. Parents weren’t supposed to have favorites, but Harold couldn’t help secretly favoring Freddie over his older brother. Bruce was very Hedda-like, and too busy lawyering and traveling with his latest (and youngest) wife to visit much.
Freddie left, and Harold and Char-Char smiled at each other.
Harold walked over to the computer. “Ready, Char-Char?”
“I’m ready, Grandpa,” Char-Char said.
He nodded. “Okay, say the magic words.”
“Abracadabra Dabra,” she whispered, her cheeks turning pink.
The town bloomed to life, and Char-Char gasped and clapped her hands.
Harold walked back to the layout and gently pulled his granddaughter’s ponytail just as the train whistled. She laughed. “Do it again, Grandpa!” He again tugged her ponytail while pressing the remote in his pocket. This time, not only did the train whistle, but two cardinals perching in a tree flapped their wings and warbled.
Char-Char sighed. “I wish I was little enough to ride the train,” she said. “And play with the kids on the playground.”
“Me too,” Harold said. He was shocked to feel a tear roll down his cheek. He closed his eyes and listened to the train and his granddaughter’s soft breathing. Then Char-Char touched his arm.
“Grandpa? I got something for you.”
Harold looked down. Five marbles filled the little girl’s cupped hand. “These are for you, Grandpa. The best ones from my collection. I heard Grandma tell Daddy you were losing your marbles, and that him and Uncle Bruce gotta take you to a doctor. But I got so many marbles, so if you need more, I can give you more.”
Heat slammed his face. He took a deep breath, then tipped the marbles from her soft little hand into his own. He tucked them into his pocket.
“Thank you, Char-Char. I won’t lose these. I promise you.”
They ambushed him after dinner. He knew trouble was up when they put Charlene in the parlor in front of Nickelodeon on the TV and shut the parlor door. Then they sat him at the kitchen table, surrounded him.
Bruce spoke first. “We’ve got you scheduled to see a doctor next week, Dad. A geriatric specialist. To check you out, find out why your, uh, imagination might need some calming down.”
“You’re talking to yourself down there!” Hedda exclaimed. “And using different voices for those little plastic people.”
“You’ve got Charlene thinking those plastic things are alive,” Erma said. “We can’t encourage that kind of delusion, Dad.”
Freddie leaned across the table and put his hands over Harold’s clenched fists. “Dad, I know retirement has probably been a challenging transition for you. I mean, to go from working full-time, interacting every day with all your colleagues and what not.”
Mimi, Bruce’s new young wife, chirped, “We’ve found a wonderful condo right by a golf course for you and Mom, in an over-55 community. It’s got a clubhouse where everyone meets for fun activities like bingo and shuffleboard. And they have trips to matinee plays and apple orchards.”
“Mimi just got her real estate license, Dad,” Bruce said. “And we’ve brought some papers for you and Mom to sign to list the house with her. She’s also the listing agent for the condo you’ll move into. So she’ll get commission fees on both ends!”
“And staging is crucial for getting top dollar for this wonderful little home,” Mimi said.
“Harold, one more thing.” Hedda cleared her throat. Harold watched her sip her sherry, set the glass down, then sip again.
“Harold, the kids wanna put a den in the basement, big couches, a big-screen TV, a bar. It won’t cost us a thing. Bruce and Mimi have good stuff in storage they’re letting us use for staging. So that means we gotta get rid of the train layout.”
Harold felt dizzy. He opened his mouth. “Uh,” was all he managed to say.
“Dad.” Freddie again patted his hands. “I’m sure we can find a buyer for it on Craigslist.”
“I don’t golf!” Harold exclaimed.
“Well, it’s never too late to learn,” Hedda said. “It’ll get you out in fresh air, interacting with real people.” She poured more sherry into her glass.
“Is it a two-bedroom condo?” Harold asked.
“Of course,” Mimi replied. “With a nice little den for your TV, a balcony, two full baths—”
The knot in his stomach loosened. “Well, then, we could put my train layout in the extra bedroom!”
“And then where would I put my embroidery table and painting easels?” Hedda gripped her glass so hard her knuckles punched white. “Plus, that’s where we’ll have a bed for when Charlene sleeps over.”
Harold shook his head. He pushed up from his chair. “The only way this’ll happen is over my dead body.” He stumbled toward the basement stairs.
“Harold!” Hedda slapped the table. “You get back here!”
But Harold kept moving. “Mom,” he heard Freddie say. “Let him go. This is a big change we’ve dropped on him. He just needs time.”
In the basement, Harold hurried to his workbench. It wouldn’t be a lake he’d be adding to his layout now. He set to work measuring and cutting and gluing.
A while later, he felt a hand on his shoulder.
“Dad.” Freddie looked at the workbench. “What’s all this you’re making?”
“What’s it look like, Freddie.”
“Coffins? You’re making tiny coffins?”
“Puttin’ in a cemetery.”
“Dad! I thought you had a lake and waterfall planned!”
“Even plastic people die, Freddie.” A sob knifed Harold’s throat.
He heard his son gasp, then whisper, “Dad.”
Harold looked at Freddie, mortified to see tears in his boy’s eyes. Shame pushed out the rage that had been squeezing his heart. He sighed. A father should never put tears in his boy’s eyes.
“Aw, kiddo.” He forced a smile. “I’m just an old coot. Maybe I am losin’ my marbles, like you all seem to think. Maybe I do need to see that geriatric specialist. Maybe I—”
“Dad! I don’t think you’re losing your marbles. I think, we all think, that maybe it’s just the tough transition from a busy, important job to well, spending all your time alone in the basement. But you know what? I’ll take care of your layout, okay? I promise. I’ll get it set up in my basement. Charlene loves Haroldsville as much as you do. And I think it’s beautiful and amazing too. You’ve worked long and hard to create this wonderful world. It should stay in the family. That way you can enjoy it whenever you visit.”
“Erma will let you do that, son?”
The sun had risen by the time Harold finished placing the cemetery where he’d once planned the lake and waterfall.
The kids had left hours earlier. Hedda had mercifully stayed upstairs.
Harold studied his work. The cemetery’s rolling green grass looked smooth and vibrant. The dandelions he’d added popped like little suns. He’d added two weeping willows where he suspected the cardinals would soon make their new home. It all looked so pretty and peaceful, but he worried what the townspeople would think. They’d all been so excited about having a lake and waterfall. Especially Old Gus. Old Gus, Harold feared, would not be happy. Oh well. What’s done was done. No sense delaying a crucial conversation. Best to get it over with.
He sighed and woke up the town.
“Harold! Who the bejesus you talking to down here! What’s all this shouting?” Hedda thundered into the basement and shoved her large body right up to the layout, banging into it with such force the little boy fell off his slide.
Harold flinched as the child burst into tears. Old Gus and the red-haired bakery gal sprang into action and rushed over to comfort the sobbing boy.
But Hedda didn’t seem to notice the distress she’d just caused. Nuzzles had followed Hedda and now swirled like fog around her legs, mewing and poking its head under the hem of her long pink nightgown. Harold could smell sherry and mint mouthwash on Hedda’s breath.
The train approached their side of the layout, whistling and clackety-clacking.
“This is stopping now, Harold! Our boys are coming over this afternoon with the papers, and you are going to sign them!” She stretched her hands toward the train.
“Heddy! Stop!” But her hands plunged toward the train.
“Gus, don’t!” Harold screamed. “No!”
When no one answered the door, Bruce and Freddie let themselves in with the key hidden under a flowerpot. They moved through the house, calling for their parents.
The coffee pot was full and plugged in. The kitchen smelled of burnt coffee. A pot of cold oatmeal perched on the stove. The bed was unmade. Harold’s pickup and Hedda’s Honda were both in the garage. The morning newspaper was on the front lawn. Nuzzles was nowhere to be found.
“Where’d they go?” Bruce frowned and looked at his Rolex. “I can’t stay long. Mimi and I are meeting friends for dinner.”
Bruce started calling neighbors and relatives, and Freddie went back to the basement, though they’d already found it empty of parents. His dad had left the town on. Lights twinkled, the train rumbled and whistled, and birds warbled.
“Where are you, Dad?” Freddie gazed at the cemetery. A handsome little cherry wood casket sat next to an open grave. He looked at the town. Gus stood in his usual position in front of his seafood restaurant, his arms crossed. But something was different. Was that a new tattoo on his arm? It looked more like something had bit him. Four red punctures blistered his skin.
Something was different in front of The Bake Shoppe, too. Freddie squinted, leaned in. His dad had added a new person. Sitting next to the bakery lady and her tray of donuts was a man. At his feet were pretty little glass balls, like tiny marbles. Freddie looked closer. The man was old, white hair exploding from his head in clumps and tufts. Gray eyebrows bushy as caterpillars.
Freddie froze. The old guy resembled . . . no . . . it was just a coincidence.
But his hands started shaking. He looked back at the cemetery. Reached over. Pried the lid from the coffin. Looked down. Gasped.
A fat white cat stretched atop an old woman. Both sleeping? No.
Incongruous black curls topped the woman’s head. A pink nightgown shrouded her body. It looked just like the one he’d given his mom for her last birthday, right down to the butterflies and flowers embroidered at the neckline.
Freddie staggered back from the layout. The basement seemed to spin. “Bruce!” he shouted. “Bruce!”
He heard footsteps on the basement stairs. Saw Bruce standing at the bottom. “I’ve called everyone I can think of,” Bruce said. “No one’s seen them, heard from them. Where could they be? What’s wrong? You look like you’ve seen a ghost!”
Freddie stared at his brother, his legs shaking, his heart hammering. “B…B…Bruce,” he stuttered. “I think I found them.”
“What? What’d you say?”
From the corner of his eye, Freddie saw movement. He looked square on at the old guy in front of The Bake Shoppe. The old man was shaking his head, putting a finger to his lips.
I’m going crazy, Freddie thought. The stress is making me hallucinate.
He looked at his brother. Opened his mouth. Suddenly remembered what he’d promised his dad.
“I’m just getting worried about them, Bruce. Maybe we should call the police?”
Bruce nodded. “I left my phone upstairs. I’ll do it.”
“I’ll be right there,” Freddie said. “I’ll just shut off the train layout first.”
He waited until his brother left. Then he kissed his finger and transferred the kiss to the old woman in the casket. “Rest in peace,” he whispered. He was glad the cat was with her. Gently, he placed the lid back on the coffin.
He walked slowly to his dad’s computer, clicked a few keys to get to the shutoff command. His finger hovered over the key. He looked back at the layout. The old guy had looked so happy, so peaceful.
He sighed. “I’ll leave you on, Dad,” he whispered. He watched the train make one loop around the layout, then sighed again and hurried upstairs to find his brother.