He came back on the one-year anniversary of his death. Robert opened the door to his son’s untouched bedroom, preserved down to the glass of water on the corner of the nightstand, now only a film of liquid at the bottom, and there was Samuel, hunched over at the desk, his hands fiddling with the tracks of the unfinished train set, the train set that Robert had begun assembling just yesterday under the lamp’s dim beam that cut through specks of dust flaking down.
At first, Robert didn’t even start; that subconscious part of him that still reached for two dinner plates instead of one welcomed Samuel back into his life against logic. And how many times had Robert opened the door hoping that his son would be there, that the past year had been a stretched-out nightmare? Robert didn’t follow a specific creed, but believed that death was the separation of the soul from the body, which he’d read somewhere in his college days and had wrapped his fingers around the day Samuel came into life and Maribelle passed away just moments after. Still, for a reason Robert couldn’t explain, seeing the back of his dead son’s head didn’t shock him as much as it should have, sending only a current of apprehension through him. He was probably just dreaming, but if this were a dream, he didn’t want to wake up.
Robert almost didn’t want his son to turn around. Samuel’s death had not been pretty. Not at all, and Robert had felt Samuel’s cracked limbs and bones shifting beneath his flesh like a bag of rocks when he’d picked Samuel up from the street after the accident. They’d been on their way back from the toy store, that large train set box on Samuel’s lap, when the truck in the next lane began skidding in the rain.
Samuel turned around, a blank, calm look on his face like it was just another night. The moonlight through the window bounced off his round cheeks. His skin was white and without the vein-like scars that the mortician had done well to hide.
“Hey, Dad. Why did you start without me?”
“What… what do you mean?” Robert held the doorframe; his knees wobbled like Jenga towers barely balanced, a single beam pulled out and he’d collapse into pieces.
“We were supposed to make the train station together,” said his son in his sweet, six-year-old voice.
Cold tingles crawled up Robert’s arms. He blinked his eyes hard several times, then took a hesitant step inside, feeling as if the shift of his weight might make his son dissolve into the lamplight as quickly as he’d gone a year ago.
Robert had no more words. He took another step in. He was less than a few feet away from his son now. Did he dare approach him, this … what was it—this ghost? Squinting his eyes, Robert tried to see if it was an apparition. But Samuel was fully there.
“Look,” Samuel said. He turned back around, his arms and hands moving. “I’m adding a track.”
Robert’s teeth were clicking nervously. If this were the ghost of his son, then at least he had a chance to talk to him again. If this were a dream, then he’d let himself indulge in it—see what his subconscious had to say about his son’s memory. Or what if—Robert himself had died in the accident as well, and hadn’t moved on yet? He took a deep breath and took a few more steps forward until he was standing over his son’s shoulder. He gulped, running his fingers over his pants and fidgeting with the pockets.
On the desk, train tracks were spread out like puzzle pieces. The trains were lined up along the edge where Robert had left them, patiently waiting for the tracks to finish looping in concentric circles and across platforms so they could get started on their journey—journeys that would represent what Robert had promised Samuel years ago when they’d seen The Polar Express in theaters: that they’d one day trek across the country on a train in the winter, sipping hot cocoa as they pierced through the ballets of snowstorms.
Directly in front of Samuel lay all that Robert had managed—a row of four straight tracks pieced together—before breaking down, his tears falling onto the tracks like rain drops. Samuel was pushing another track into the end, but he was doing it wrong. You couldn’t just push them together; you had to set their links on top of one another, then pull to lock them. It was simple enough, yet Robert’s hands had shook the day before as he’d snapped them together.
“Samuel…” Robert said. “You—you can’t do it like that.” He reached over and guided the fifth track over the fourth, then pressed it in and pulled, locking them. His finger brushed against Samuel’s hand as he did this. Samuel really was there.
“See, like that,” Robert said.
Samuel glanced up at his dad, then back down. His eyes were the same, too. Dark forest green. “Thanks, Dad.”
“Right…” Robert said. “It’s… no problem.” He cleared his throat. “I’m… going to go make dinner now. I’ll tell you when it’s ready.”
As soon as Robert was downstairs, he called the investment banking firm he worked at to test reality. The receptionist’s familiar voice answered.
“Hello?” she said.
“Hi Marie… this is Robert.”
“Oh. Hi Robert. How are things going?”
“Good. Good… I just wanted to see if any messages came in for me.”
“Oh, Robert, you’re such a responsible guy. But no, no messages for you.”
“Okay… thanks. Yeah, I just wanted to check.”
Marie laughed politely. Another telephone rang in the background. “No problem. Hey Robert, I got to go. You know how it gets around here. Already seven and everyone’s still working. But do me a favor, yeah?”
Robert waited a moment, then said, “What’s that?”
“Don’t call back today. It’s a… special day for you. And I know it’s not my business, but I think it’d be good to invest all of your energy on… what’s at hand.”
Robert didn’t respond.
“Okay, then!” she said in a cheery voice. “I’ll see you tomorrow!”
She hung up.
Indeed, it was supposed to be a… special day. Robert had been mourning the past year over Samuel and had only returned to work six months ago. Everyone at the company understood. His boss insisted on paying Robert on leave, and even including him in on the shared end-of-the-year bonus. The consolatory cards were mailed, emailed, and hand-delivered by friends, families, and half-familiar faces at the supermarket. It’s not fair, many of them had said. There’s a reason for everything, a few whispered. He’s with the Lord now, his neighbor had offered near the end of his prayer for Robert.
It’d been one year to the day, and today Robert was going to select a single item from Samuel’s room and store it in the attic. His family members all thought it was a good idea—there’d been flickers of concern in their eyes when they came to visit. What item would he have picked? He wondered as he shook the eggs on the pan over the stove. Maybe that glass of water on the nightstand—the thing that made his parents’ eyes rove in wariness when they saw it still there. Or the blue t-rex stuffed-animal—Dino—that was as large as Samuel, that Samuel kept at the foot of his bed to guard against evil things. It was while Robert was in Samuel’s room, trying to decide on an object, that his toe had nudged the train set box near the closet.
Footsteps came down the stairs. Robert’s nerves had calmed at the thought of the past, at the hugs and tears that’d been offered, but now his heart was punching again as he heard his son’s footsteps toward the kitchen table.
Robert turned around and Samuel was sitting on a chair. His legs looked longer now, dangling closer to the floor.
“Are those eggs?” asked Samuel, swinging his feet.
Robert looked back at the pan. He hadn’t shaken the eggs for a while. The edges of white had curled in, and the yolk popped softly like bubble gum, collapsing within itself.
“Yes… they are.”
“How come we’re having eggs for dinner?” asked Samuel. “I thought eggs were a breakfast food.”
“They… are.” Robert had Samuel and him eat eggs every morning, never at night. But since Samuel had passed, Robert had gotten into the habit of cooking them at dinner instead, skipping breakfast. He hadn’t noticed this until now. “Eggs are fine for dinner, as well, Samuel.” It was starting to feel like any other conversation with his son.
“They smell good,” said Samuel.
Robert took a long whiff. They smelled terrible, like sulfur. A smile came to his lips. It was such a foreign feeling, a smile coming on its own and not being forced for onlookers.
He poured the eggs into a bowl and brought it over to the table along with a spoon and some bread. Then he went back to the drawers and brought over a second bowl and spoon. How ironic was it that he’d normally set the table for two, but that tonight he hadn’t? He shrugged to himself. Then he watched Samuel scoop pieces of egg into his mouth, chewing the bread casually. Robert watched Samuel eat, the food disappear from the plate. When the bowl was empty, Samuel said, “Thank you for dinner, Dad,” which surprised Robert because even though Samuel was a good kid, he didn’t normally thank him for dinner. Then Samuel headed back upstairs, and Robert washed the dishes slowly, feeling like he could wake up at any moment.
Robert didn’t sleep that night, just kept getting up from his bed and checking through the crack of Samuel’s door (Samuel didn’t like the door fully closed, in case there was someone bad in the room that’d gotten past Dino, he could run away quickly) that a body was still on the bed, breathing beneath the blanket. Then he’d return to his room and lie stiffly on his bed.
“This… is a dream,” he whispered to himself. “This is a dream…” But he didn’t want it to be. He just said that to reassure himself of something—that he wasn’t crazy? Or that ghosts weren’t real, even though he’d so desperately believed in the soul’s passing from this world into the next when he’d needed.
When the dawn light came and his window was a dark-blue pane, his mind finally wandered off, and he dreamt that it was a far-off future, and he was riding on an empty train through some backcountry in Europe, rolling past grey junkyards as violet-tipped snowflakes began to drizzle down from the sky. The seat to his left, by the window, was empty, and Robert knew that that’s where Samuel was supposed to be, maybe standing on the seat, hands on the sill, staring out into the world and hours passing them by. When Robert saw an orange glow rushing through the cracks of the compartment door, he woke up, and smelled something burning.
His eyes twitched slowly open, and then shot wide. Something was burning. Actually burning.
He rushed to Samuel’s room and threw the door open. Samuel wasn’t there.
“Samuel?” Robert yelled, rushing down the stairs. He nearly tripped but caught himself with the rail.
Samuel was sitting in a chair at the table, facing the staircase with an idle look. A bag of popcorn trembled on a pan over the stove, leaking smoke and about to burst like an over-inflating balloon.
“Samuel, what are you doing?” Robert said, doing his best to keep his words calm. He ran over and turned off the flame.
Samuel glanced at his father, then looked away. “I just wanted some popcorn.”
Robert opened the window above the sink. Cold air drifted in, dispelling the chords of smoke. “Yes, I see that, Samuel, but… you know better than to make it yourself. You are to ask me. You know you’re too young to use the stove.”
“But I tried to wake you up, and you wouldn’t,” Samuel said.
“Just some minutes ago. I was in your room asking you to get up and make me some popcorn, because I was hungry.”
Robert couldn’t remember a single time when Samuel had tried to wake him up in the night, or attempted to use the stove.
“I’m sorry, Dad,” Samuel said.
Robert sighed. “It’s okay, Samuel. Just promise me you won’t use the stove again by yourself, okay?”
“Okay,” Samuel said. Then he got up and skipped back upstairs.
“I thought you were hungry,” Robert said.
“I’m not anymore,” his son said, and his bedroom door shut closed.
The next day, the first thing Robert did when he woke up was check to see that Samuel was in his bed sleeping. He was. Then Robert showered, got dressed, and cooked a large batch of oatmeal, making sure there was plenty left over that he could leave out for Samuel. He considered gently waking his son up to say good morning and tell him he’d be off to work, but that seemed unnecessary. Besides, what if Samuel asked about school? What would he say then? Robert had the feeling that his son didn’t understand he was dead, that his soul had drifted back into this world away from his mother because he missed his dad too much, missed this life that should’ve been his. And so, feeling that if he paid too much attention to Samuel, that his son might become startled and return to where he’d come, Robert went to work, and acted as if everything were normal.
Marie gave him a half smile filled with sympathy as he walked into the office.
“Did you have a good day off?” she asked.
Robert nodded cautiously, then tried his best to smile back. It didn’t matter what look he had on his face, though, the look like he’d seen a ghost, because Marie interpreted it how she wanted. Everyone did that.
“You look well, Robert,” she said, as if he hadn’t the previous six months.
“Thanks,” he said.
He began walking away but she told Robert to wait.
“I actually lied to you yesterday,” she said, smiling. “Sorry, but several messages came in.”
When he didn’t smile back this time, she sat up in her chair. “I just didn’t want you to have any distractions, was all. I hope you understand.”
He shrugged, his eyelids blinking rapidly like the shutters of a video camera. “It’s not a problem,” he said, clearing his throat.
It was a normal day at work, except that one of the messages was no message at all. Instead, it was a complete bout of near-silent, static hissing, like a radio that had lost connection. He played it again and turned up the volume, hearing what he made out to be the faint drizzle of rain.
After work, he went to the supermarket and filled his cart with sugar-coated cereal, juice boxes, and boxes of frozen pizzas. Heating up a frozen meal in a microwave was safe enough, wasn’t it? But if Samuel really was back, Robert wanted to keep his son as healthy as possible, so he bought a variety of fruits, too.
At home, Robert unloaded the grocery bags, then went upstairs. The door to Samuel’s room was nearly closed, and it looked dark in there. Robert peeked through the crack and sighed with relief when he saw Samuel sitting at the desk, hunched over with his arms working on the train set, the only light being that from the desk lamp. Robert nudged the door open.
“You’re making some good progress there, Samuel,” Robert said, walking toward his son.
“How do you know?” said his son, not turning around. “You haven’t seen what I’ve done today.”
Robert froze. Samuel had said that innocently enough, but it was still unlike him. Maybe Robert had to get used to the fact that Samuel was changing, growing up still, that Samuel was not going to be that naïve, dependent little boy he was when he’d died.
“Right,” Robert said, arriving at Samuel’s side.
The train set was halfway finished, the right side looping up in a spiral, three platforms high, supported by pillars. It didn’t look easy; even Robert would’ve had to read the manual carefully to set it up. Yet Samuel had done it all on his own.
“I had a dream about mom yesterday,” Samuel said. “She wanted me to tell you something.”
Robert felt his heart pound. “Oh… and what was that…?”
“She said that it was all worth it.”
“What… what do you mean?”
Samuel shrugged. “I don’t know, that’s all she said. And then she disappeared.”
It was all worth it. What was worth it? Bringing Samuel into this world, even as an exchange for her own life? His time with Samuel, raising him with hopes of one day having a son as a best friend, the two of them venturing across a continent on a train? What were these worth if the dreams had been wrenched away by death?
Samuel’s stomach growled, shaking Robert out of his thoughts.
“Are you hungry, Samuel?” Robert asked.
Samuel stopped working on the tracks and folded his fingers across an empty space on the desk. “Yes,” he said. “I didn’t eat anything today because I didn’t want to make anything on fire again.”
“You didn’t make anything on fire yesterday,” Robert said. “Although you might have… But why didn’t you eat the food on the table?”
Come to think of it, the leftover oatmeal hadn’t been there when he’d returned, nor was there an empty bowl in the sink. Samuel shrugged, his eyes wandering around the tracks that had yet to be connected.
“Did you see the food I left you?” Robert said.
“I threw it away.”
“What?” Heat flushed to Robert’s face. He wasn’t sure if he was upset, shocked, or just confused. It was probably some of each. “Samuel, why would you do that?”
“I wasn’t hungry in the morning,” Samuel said. His hands resumed working on the tracks, taking a stray one and trying to push it into those already connected.
“Samuel,” Robert said in a more serious tone than he wanted. “That doesn’t mean you should throw the food away.”
“But there were flies, Dad, and they were eating the food. And you said that flies eating our food are bad, remember?”
Robert didn’t remember ever saying that, but maybe he’d forgotten. Then again, Robert seemed to remember every other conversation he’d had with his son—looking both sides before crossing the street, not trusting strangers, buckling up. Buckling up… Robert never drove unless Samuel had his seatbelt locked in, but Samuel had gotten into a habit of tucking the shoulder strap behind him, saying that it was more comfortable that way. Robert had admonished Samuel several times, but the morning, of Samuel’s sixth birthday…
“You said that flies have bad germs on them,” Samuel said. “And that when they touch the food, the germs go from their feet onto the food.”
“Right, right…” Robert said, wiping off the tears that had formed in his eyes.
Samuel was trying to force the track piece in, like he had yesterday before Robert had showed him how to do it correctly.
“Samuel… Remember what I taught you yesterday?”
His son didn’t respond.
“Samuel…” Robert said.
Still, no response.
“Sam… Samuel!” he yelled. It was the same voice he’d used as he’d ran across the highway to Samuel.
Samuel turned his head up and looked at his father, and Robert flinched. In his son’s green eyes flickered an unearthly glow.
“Sorry, Dad,” Samuel said. “I forgot.”
Samuel turned back around and did it correctly, lifting the track pieces on top of another, pressing their latches in, pulling to lock them. “Like this, right?”
“Right,” Robert said. “Good job… Samuel…”
Robert hadn’t said another word to his son, instead backing out of the room and going downstairs to start dinner. He’d felt such joy when he’d seen Samuel back, but now he was becoming apprehensive. Maybe it just took time to readjust, Robert assured himself. Just like when Samuel had gone.
As he waited for the water to boil, he glanced into the trash can, feeling strangely alarmed, for whatever reason, that perhaps Samuel had lied to him about throwing away the food. It wasn’t there, just a tied plastic bag containing the shards of a bowl he’d dropped some time ago. Where was the oatmeal? Searching around downstairs, on the chairs, tables, and sofas, a nauseating feeling crept up in his stomach.
The last place he checked was where he found it—in the refrigerator. But why would Samuel tell him he’d thrown it away if he’d simply placed it into the fridge? He would’ve said it proudly, like the time he picked up a woman’s money bag that had fallen out of her purse, and handed it to her. Robert wasn’t sure he wanted to know.
To settle his nerves, Robert cooked a carefully-prepared pork soup, painstakingly dicing the onions, garlic, and carrots into thin slices so that their flavors would infuse into the soup better, and another hour to let it slowly simmer. This was Samuel’s favorite meal, and maybe it would help settle Samuel back into his home, into his old self. When he was finished, he called for Samuel to come down, but Samuel said he wasn’t hungry anymore.
“Are you sure?” Robert asked at the bottom of the stairs.
“Yeah, Dad!” Samuel said.
After a pause, Robert said, “It’s your favorite soup, though!” Part of Robert just wanted to see the food go into Samuel again. And maybe he could bring up the leftover oatmeal in the fridge. It was probably just a misunderstanding. Samuel didn’t respond.
Samuel had looked so focused up there in his room on that train set. There wasn’t so much joy in his son’s face as there was determination, and perhaps even discomfort at trying to piece it all together. Robert realized that, ironically, they hadn’t spent a single moment actually putting the tracks together as planned: Robert had started it, and now Samuel was nearly finished. Robert started up the stairs, determined to finally spend some time with his returned son. Unafraid. He would not let his memories and fear take another moment away.
He tripped halfway up the stairs and barely ught himself. When he was in front of Samuel’s door, he found it locked. As he jimmied with the knob, he could already sense what had happened. He pounded on the door with his fist.
“Samuel?” he yelled. “Samuel! Open the door!”
He pressed his ear against the door and listened. He could hear something, something scratching, or ticking. No, it was a hiss. Like rain. Or static. Like the snow of a disconnected channel.
He kicked the door and it burst open, the door kicking back against the wall and knocking into him as he stumbled inside.
Samuel was not in there. A breeze blew in through the window, lifting the black curtains, which undulated like fingers, curling in and out. Robert walked over to the desk. The train set was complete, the left side looping up in a spiral, connected to the station by a bridge. Four trains stood connected on the tracks. Robert pressed the button on the front train. They came to life, and began their journeys.F