‘Get the hell away from me!’
She doesn’t have a lot of push in her arms but it’s enough to make Greaseball step back a little, if only out of shock. There’s a look on Dinah’s face that he’s never seen – or, never taken seriously – before. Her neat little curls frame a near-murderous scowl on her face and she looks like she’s just about prepared to take up a cake slice and serve him a piece of her mind.
‘Come on, baby, I said I was sorry, why are you bein’ like this?’ He holds out his hands almost pleadingly, an uneasy grin on his face, and she steps back when he comes forwards.
The accusatory look doesn’t leave her features. Her eyes narrow and she sneers, backing up, closer to her girls. The others are starting to look up. Congregated just over the tracks, the steam trains and freight gang celebrating Rusty’s victory, the symbolic conquering of adversity as they lift him into the air, cheering and singing, the sounds of celebration dimming to only a murmur as the drama over the way becomes apparent.
Dinah jabs a pointed finger into Greaseball’s chest. He’s almost tempted to tell her she’s cute when she’s angry, or kiss her to shut her up, but something tells him that it’ll get him punched. He goes to touch her but she smacks his hand down with surprising force and his face falls.
‘I’m not your baby anymore, Greaseball, I’m done with you treating me like I’m- like I’m a second-class car!’ Her voice is shrill and full of a shaking fury that her body can barely contain. Other trains are looking on in awe and Greaseball even finds himself shrinking down a little, bashfully. In all of his bravado and strength he can’t charm his way out of this one.
‘Come on, sweetie,’ he ventures again, nervously, eyes darting between her and the staring crowd behind them, ‘Don’t make a scene, now, ya don’t wanna cause trouble, do ya?’
‘I’ll cause all the trouble I want!’ hisses Dinah and Greaseball feels himself shrink further, like a puppy being scolded, or a bully caught in his games. ‘You uncoupled me, you pushed me around, now you gotta deal with it, mister!’
The passenger cars are slowly advancing to back up their sister, Pearl with Rusty clinging to her arm, a firm look of almost smug authority on his face. Yeah, asshole, get outta here, before a real engine shows you the door.
‘Fine!’ he grunts at last, turning on his heel, ‘That’s fine by me, Little Miss- S-Spoiled Brat, but don’t you come crawlin’ back to me when you miss these muscles!’
He flexes for emphasis but Dinah only scoffs, her face for a second showing a sneering grin but quickly returning to her scowl. She’s pissed and there’s no way he’s getting out of this. Did he really expect to be able to treat her the way he did and be taken back? No repercussions, no doubts? Heat flushes his face and he snarls, cornered, suddenly the meathead instead of the idol. He looks over the crowd, trying to spot the Rolling Stock, his crew, his posse, but they turn away, mutiny to their captain, mutiny to the bastard, disputing their leader for the very first time.
Something in his chest falls when he sees that. Not even the freight punk, what’s his name, brick boy, will look at him. Part of him wants to feel betrayed but all he really feels is guilt, shame, like a man who’s been running from death forever finally feeling the icy grasp on his shoulder, like a man trying to flee from a deal with the devil when the devil at last comes to collect what he’s owed.
‘Don’t ever,’ snaps Dinah, ‘Whistle at me, or any of my girls, ever again.’
And she turns away. The crowd parts to let her in then closes again like a wall around her, the other girls applauding her bravery, cheering her on, and the wall of freight and steam and cars and dirty mutineering diesels has closed him out, impermeable.
He tries to yell obscenities, that she’ll regret this, that soon he’d have ladies clambering over him and that this was her last chance and that if she didn’t take him back she’d be sorry, but it’s too late. Nobody can hear him. He’s been scrapped. All he sees from within the crowd is a menacing look from one of the Rockies, as if to say back off, asshole, you’ve outstayed your welcome, and he realises that nobody’s going to defend him. To challenge this would be like driving into oncoming traffic. There’s a wall of unwelcomeness and he can either walk away from it or be crushed.
He has plenty of time to ruminate on his mistake as he walks down the old line, grumbling to himself, kicking a can along the tracks. Flattened pennies and gravel and old wrappers litter the grey ground as the sky slowly fades from grey to purple like a bruise, the sun slinking behind the silhouettes of coal houses and watch stations, and he watches it for a moment as it’s seemingly trapped under the black outline of a bridge, fleetingly understanding the purpose behind Stonehenge. He chuckles. He feels sick.
For a minute he wonders where CB went. Jesus Christ, that little bastard. Thinking of someone so small being capable of so much chaos makes him feel cold, as if he’s hearing a tasteless joke, he can’t believe it’s true but if it’s made up, the person who did so is sick. He needs a cigarette. He needs a drink. The headache is still pounding as if he’s hungover and he’s aching to sit down and take off his shoes, just for a second.
He doesn’t, though; he keeps on walking. He’s not sure exactly where he’s going. Maybe he thinks if he keeps on walking people will come and find him, feeling sorry, those traitorous shits in the Rolling Stock desperate for their leader back. The thought tickles him, but he has to give it up, it’s just not realistic. Nobody’s coming to find him, and all he can hope to do is walk until he can find somewhere, some cozy cabin, some other terminal, to rest for a while, lay low, until he thinks they’ll let him come back, tail between his legs. It sickens him to think of, makes his chest feel tight.
With a small black comb he brushes his hair into some semblance of tidiness, with the aid of his reflection in the blackened window of an abandoned shed. The corrugated iron roof has been somewhat torn off by the weather, bent at an angle, bolts ripped from the brick. Greaseball feels his heart go weird looking at it, he’s not sure why, but he has to slap himself to keep himself from crying. No, that’s not manly. He’s got to keep going all night.
It’s only when night truly falls that he really starts to repent. He feels so rejected and lonely, his heart aches with Dinah’s words, but it’s not that it’s Dinah, it’s just that everyone turned on him so quickly. And the worst part is that he can even see where they came from – his treatment of them, his brashness, cockiness, cheating, lying, bullying, domineering, it’s all come back to bite him in the ass, and he has no idea how he can make up for it.
If he even can.
For a minute, staring at the moon in the sky, like the light at the end of an eternal, unreachable tunnel, he feels like a man on death row, or someone who’s been condemned to Hell, searching desperately for one thing to redeem himself. And nothing comes to mind. He thinks for hours. He’s never had to sit still, alone, for so long, staring at the moon, a judging floodlight illuminating his wrongs.
Ok, so maybe he should’ve treated Dinah better. Maybe he shouldn’t have taken her for granted and assumed she’d always come back when he called. Maybe he shouldn’t have been so rough with her. How was that his fault? She should’ve known, with how strong he was, and how he didn’t- doesn’t- take any crap from anyone- no, he couldn’t lie to himself, that was on him. Greaseball feels his chains weigh him down. He trudges, hands in his pockets, through the silent dark of night, headlights bobbing with his heavy steps.
He is a man on the very verge of experiencing a consequence for the first time in his life. Something else he is experiencing for the first time was the urge to be a good person. He’d never had to consider it before. People would just stick around him because they were with him or against him, they were in the Rolling Stock, in his gang, or they’d be rolled out, they were losers, and ousted from that hierarchy he’s nothing. He never considered it before but he’s only realising now that he’s weak with nobody else. Weakness is new and entirely foreign to him. His knees buckle a little and his glide falters.
Greaseball reaches a bridge. Beyond the bridge was a junction, rust-red tracks diverging on gravel into the black abyss, distant lights barely outlining buildings and machinery in a faint white glow. In the quiet he feels almost hypersensitised, conscious of everything in his body, the burn of fuel inside him, the wisp of a hair falling out of place. He doesn’t move to comb it back into its place in the pompadour, he just lets the curling lock fall over his forehead boyishly.
A sound cuts through the dark. A near-silent hiss, like a sharp sigh or a gasp, something heavy being dragged on a rough but even floor. It’s enough to make Greaseball jump, and he mentally scolds himself for being such a pansy, a big tough guy like him shouldn’t be freaking out at the tiniest noise, but what scares him next is the realisation of what this means – he’s not alone.
There’s someone else on the bridge. On this metal strip in the dead of night, abandoned to Control, unwatched and uncharted, there’s someone else.
And they’re crying.
This tugs on something inside the diesel as he inches closer. He’s never really been expected to emote, much less with someone so precarious, and he can’t see who it is in the dark – a slight, shaking frame, sitting there, sobbing gently, colours milky in the harsh beam of his headlights, flashes of red and blue. Greaseball inches a little closer.
‘You- you alright there?’ he offers, a little awkwardly, and the figure looks up sharply. He immediately recognises the stark, bright star on the distraught, angry face, the doelike eyes widened in surprise, a telltale profile even without the arcing red and blue crest. ‘…Electra?’
‘Leave me alone,’ hisses Electra, snarling almost, shuffling sideways on the bridge. He looks at Greaseball and opens his mouth, sneering, almost as if to offer some other disparaging comment to his former racing rival, but he shuts himself up, huffing petulantly. With a quick hand, he wipes tears from his face, as if it’s not too late to hide from Greaseball that he’s been crying.
Hesitantly, almost incredulously, Greaseball lowers himself to the electric train’s level and crouches next to him, watching the depths below. It’s so dark. He can’t be sure if it’s tracks or a river beneath them, so far down. The moonlight and lamplight cascades down and the shimmers could be metal rails or rippling water but one thing’s for sure, and the thought punches Greaseball in the gut like bad news, like an unwelcome visitor: if someone were to fall from this bridge, rails or water, they would die.
He has to do something to push that thought out of his mind. He’s never been prepared to deal with thoughts like that. The thought didn’t occur as a precaution, but as a simple reminder, a fun factoid, a fall from this height will kill you; do with this information as you will.
‘What are you doin’ ‘round here?’ he asks, feeling his voice come out rough. His throat is dry. He can feel his arms shake.
Electra’s quiet for a while. He’s hesitant, wary. ‘Nothing,’ he replies, eventually, a little huffy, as if he doesn’t entirely value Greaseball’s company, and Greaseball doesn’t blame him. ‘What are you doing around here?’
The snappy retort catches Greaseball off guard. Honesty, he has to be honest. A deep, gruff sigh forces its way from inside his chest.
‘Just needed to clear my head,’ he mumbles, ‘Dinah gave me a real chewin’ out. Everyone’s really givin’ me the cold shoulder, I figured I’d go for a stroll an’ hope they take me back in the mornin’.’
Electra scoffs, almost as if to say serves you right, then goes quiet again. He looks almost humble without his crest, the great arc of colour like plumage, as if he’s some exotic bird. It strikes Greaseball that it’s strange for Electra to be without his entourage, his minders; he’s never seen him alone. Something must be really preying on the electric engine, something must be seriously wrong, to drive the attention-seeking social butterfly to isolate himself, especially somewhere like this, so lonely and derelict.
Then again, it’s dramatic.
Electra isolating himself here suddenly makes sense.
‘You feelin’ okay after the race?’ Greaseball asks, almost jokingly with a nervous chuckle. ‘Lemme tell you, I’m just achin’, and-’
The air goes cold. Greaseball is suddenly acutely aware of the tension surrounding them. He’s struck a nerve and he’s struck it deep. The race, that’s what’s preying on him, and he can understand why. Electra ran off after losing, before Greaseball himself was kicked out, and he was pretty miffed – he was almost tantruming, telling everyone about how he wouldn’t be coming back until it sounded like he was begging for them to ask him to stay, care about him, but none of them were listening. They didn’t heed his goodbye, they didn’t eat his dust, they didn’t know he was gone.
Greaseball opens his mouth to speak but Electra interjects. ‘If you hadn’t tried to grab that fucking Caboose, I would’ve won.’ His voice quivers, his lip trembles, his teeth glint white, ‘If you’d stayed on your own track, I would’ve won!’
He’s audibly trying to choke back more tears when Greaseball realises, eyes widening, that this is probably a first time for Electra, too – the first time he’s ever lost. The first time he’s ever had to entertain the idea of not being perfect, acknowledge flaws in his own body. By the way he’s curling himself up, almost to hide himself from sight in the hopes that he’ll just turn invisible, he’s taking the news pretty badly.
‘There’s no shame in losin’, now,’ Greaseball ventures, shuffling a little closer. Electra looks so pathetic, it’d be almost shameful not to help. His little stroll has put him in a mood for it. ‘Every engine’s gotta lose one, once in a while. That li’l steam punk only won by a fluke, we’ll get him next time, eh, champ?’
He tries to playfully bop Electra on the shoulder but Electra slaps him away indignantly, voice cracking. ‘There’s no we!’ After a second, his scowl quakes and falls into a forlorn expression, and in a sorry little voice he adds, ‘And there’s no next time.’
‘Jesus, they’re gonna scrap you just for losin’ one little race?!’
Electra snorts spitefully. ‘No, you idiot.’ He shifts awkwardly on the spot, avoiding Greaseball’s gaze. ‘Don’t be stupid. I just don’t want anyone seeing me now.’
‘Don’t be a damn fool, ya big sparkin’ idiot, nobody cares about that. Where’s ya crew, ya friends, the, uh-’
‘The Components are elsewhere. They don’t know where I am. They probably just think I’m sulking...’ He leans back slightly, staring up at the smoky, starless sky. ‘Licking my wounds…’
Greaseball gives in to the urge to be a smartass. ‘Aren’t ya?’
The two of them go quiet again.
A grey cloud of smoke illuminated by a blazing fire beneath plumes over the horizon. Greaseball watches it curl up and up and up before he realises that Electra’s starting to cry again.
Moonlight illuminates his sleek form in pale streaks. In this new light Greaseball is hit by an epiphany like the first bar of a heavenly chorus, that Electra isn’t his rival anymore, he’s redemption. Greaseball is a man doomed to hell roaming a ravaged earth who’s finally found his salvation, his one good deed, his ticket to heaven. Electra is sobbing, choking like he’s drowning, and he glows with an essence that Greaseball is sure will save his soul.
And if he does, Dinah will take him back. Greaseball forces that thought to the forefront of his mind. He’s not doing this for Electra, why would he care if the arrogant bastard is upset about losing a race? He’s only doing this so he can prove that he’s got some heart, get his girl back, that’s it. That’s the reason for his redemption. It leaves a sickly shallow feeling in his stomach but he can’t bare the thought of actually wanting this pompous nerd to be okay.
He drapes an arm over Electra’s shoulder and to his surprise, the electric leans in, his body shaking with static and sadness, the deep, hiccupping cries of someone completely lost and hopeless, on the brink of a total crisis. Electra’s sobbing out helpless whimpers, almost incomprehensible, he wraps his arms around Greaseball’s broad shoulders and buries his head against his neck. He’s so not used to losing. Perfection is all he knows. It’s all he is.
Greaseball has to consciously not feel sorry for him.
‘I can’t lose!’ Electra wails, heartbroken, ‘How could I lose?! And now- and- and now-’ He can barely squeak out the words, overcome and frustrated, ‘And now everyone thinks I’m- I’m- I’m- a loser- and- and- they won’t like me anym- anymore!’
God, he’s childish. He sounds like a kid who fucked up in class, or couldn’t get a date to prom, but he’s absolutely broken. Greaseball weakly pats his back, one strong hand rubbing those lithe shoulders in awkward circles. ‘Sure they’ll like you, kid, what’s one little loss on your record? Come on, now, you’ve got a lotta fans. They’re not gonna leave you just after one silly mistake.’
This seems to plant the seed in Electra’s head and he starts to cry harder, great wracking wails as if he’s being tortured, and Greaseball almost reflexively pulls him in tighter, cradling his head to his chest, closing his eyes and inhaling the scent of electric burns and ozone and body paint, chemical and strong. It’s for Dinah, it’s just so Dinah will take him back. So why’s he holding him so tightly?
‘There’s no coming back from this,’ Electra heaves, ‘No comeback, no comeback, no comeback…’ The mournful shaking of his head causes him to burrow deeper into Greaseball’s chest, nuzzling in as if he’s trying to find his heart, be comforted by the steady, reliable thrum. Greaseball smells foul, like fumes and smoke and arson, but he’s so warm. ‘I’m ruined.’
‘C’mere, honey. C’mere.’ He wants to kick himself for saying that. So sweet. It isn’t right. ‘Ya ain’t ruined, I’ll tell ya that. Yer fans are probably itchin’ for a comeback. Jus’ because some sorry li’l trains in one petty li’l station in the middle of assfuck-nowhere don’t like you, doesn’t mean that it’s all over. There are more stations out there…’
A gust of wind rolls through the bridge beneath them. The force of it, and the melancholy howl of its passage, is like the presence of a ghost ship passing below their feet, the palpable presence of death. Greaseball remembers a question, a sickly curiosity in his chest, and he has to force himself to ask:
Electra sniffles in response. Greaseball stares into the distance. He’s not sure what he’s looking for. He’s never really felt lost before. He settles on a blinking light on the horizon and asks on an exhale:
‘Why’d you come here, anyway?’
Noticeably, Electra freezes. His body tenses up and Greaseball could swear his body goes cold to the touch. His shoulders go rigid and his face, those pretty, smooth features, contort in misery as he holds back another flood of tears. It’s too humiliating to explain. God, he’s so stupid; stupid, stupid, stupid.
Unreliable electric. So prone to breakdowns. He falls to pieces in the bewildered Greaseball’s arms and Greaseball, macho man he is, is barely equipped to deal with his own emotions, much less anyone else’s, so all he can offer is a tight, muscular hug and Electra practically melts into it, turning into putty, into warm water, holy water, a wash of holy light. For the first time, the first time in forever, Greaseball feels his heart flutter, and he’s not sure whether to be terrified or to lean into it, fall into it, melt into it like Electra, defiant and demanding, has melted into his embrace.
‘There there, honey,’ Greaseball murmurs gruffly, ‘You’re gonna be okay. I got you. I got you…’
What are the chances? Like catching a shooting star. Like being struck by lightning.
Electra pulls away. His eye makeup is streaming down his face in dramatic black streaks, he looks like a demon, or an angel that’s been shot out of the sky, like he’s been crying blood. The crying has washed him clean and he’s so goddamn pretty. Big, sad eyes still wet with tears, quivering and then fluttering shut as he lunges in as quick as a lightning bolt, grasping the sides of Greaseball’s head, pulling him in for a kiss. It lands like a missile. His lips are so plush, Greaseball thinks, his chest going warm and tight as he fumbles to put his hands on Electra’s svelte hips. So soft, so warm, he doesn’t even think to scold him for messing up his hair with those grasping, clutching hands.
Before he can even process it, Greaseball’s reciprocating, he feels himself push against Electra, feel the jolts and hum of static against his skin, wipes back a tear with his thumb, drinks in his warmth, basks in the light like a sunbeam from heaven. They part for a second and Electra is panting, shaking, overwhelmed, Greaseball peppers his cheeks with desperate, sloppy kisses, tasting his salvation, trying to devour him entirely. Electra pulls him close and Greaseball buries his head into the electric train’s neck, inhaling deeply the scent of expensive cologne and glitter.
‘I’m so scared,’ whimpers Electra, muffled, ‘God, what if nobody wants me?’
‘Don’t be silly, sunshine, don’t be a fool, of course they’ll want ya. A lotta people want ya. Electric’s the future, don’t’cha keep on sayin’ that?’ The words are a little bitter in his mouth, like coughing up an uncoated pill, but he’ll say them if it makes him feel better. ‘You’re top ‘o the line, a real superstar, you just hit a li’l hurdle, that’s okay. Come on, champ. You’re gonna be okay.’
For a while, they just sit there, in silence, Electra shuddering as if he's shutting down, Greaseball holding him in his arms, on the bridge, over the water, under the dark. All the carriages he’s been coupled with, he’s never held them like this. He can’t pinpoint what makes this different. Electra’s body is so perfect and so fragile, a mosaic of lights like the aerial view of a city, or a diagram of a subway system, or the inside of a computer. He’s warm, like a teddy bear, but not as soft, his body is all smooth curves and elegant edges, Greaseball finds a hand absentmindedly trailing down to his waist…
Something about this is just perfect, Greaseball thinks, but he can’t put his finger on why. It’s foreign and new, a tenderness in his chest he’s feeling for the very first time, but it’s not unwelcome. It’s warm, and soft, a gentle embrace, a blanket, bathing in a ray of light. He completely forgets about salvation. All he can think about is the rise and fall of Electra’s back, watching it with an immense fascination, and he still just can’t guess why.
‘Your muscles are so biiig,’ Electra coos a little coyly, as if drunk, after a few minutes of silence, giving one of Greaseball’s biceps a quick squeeze. He’s got a giddy smile in his voice and Greaseball flushes red, which amuses him greatly, and the two pull away from each other, the diesel helping the electric to his feet.
‘We oughta, um, get you back to your, eh, Components,’ Greaseball stammers, rubbing his neck awkwardly, ‘Before they start worrying ‘bout where you are.’
‘Oh, they won’t worry,’ says Electra dismissively, and for a second Greaseball is genuinely frightened that Electra’s gone back to that pessimistic feeling of being cared about by nobody, but then Electra thankfully adds, ‘I’ll just show up with a big, strong engine like you and they’ll know I got home just fine.’
Greaseball lets out a humiliating noise, somewhat between a chuckle and a giggle, and it makes Electra laugh, and this only makes him worse, his chest hammering with glee and frustration and concern and embarrassment. The two stroll slowly back down the line, beams of light cutting through the dark, to where the Components are stationed, and before Electra announces his presence to his likely sleeping minders, he turns to his chauffeur with an awkward half-smile.
‘Greaseball, I… I’m sorry that I worried you today. You didn’t need to… see me like that.’
‘Recovering’ with a spluttering cough, Greaseball feels a bead of sweat trickle down his neck. ‘Worry- worry about ya? Who said I was worried, y- ya big- plug-in peacock?’
Electra smiles gently. For a second, Greaseball expects a quip back, but Electra leans in and places a kiss on his lips, briefly, gently, and there’s a first time for that, too – it’s the first time he’s ever felt wanted. He’s felt wanted for his fame before, his physique, but the tenderness of that tiny kiss awakens a deep, helpless yearning that had laid long-dormant and unnoticed within him. Girls clamouring over him, begging him to race with them, fighting over his status, that was an ego stroker, but his knees go weak and his stomach feels light as Electra places a hand on his cheek, pulls away, then gives his cheek a gentle pat as he turns his back.
‘G’night, meathead,’ Electra calls out, as he slowly rolls away with a cry of ‘Hey! Krupp, Purse, Joule, Volta, Wrench! Daddy’s home!’
Greaseball can’t help but smirk as the disgruntled sounds of the components waking up to let their leader in ring out through the night air, like the groans of the damned. As the door opens, a portal of sheer light in the midnight, Electra is transformed into a silhouette against it, and Greaseball can’t tell if he’s smiling back at him or not when he disappears and the portal closes, the lights shut off, it’s darkness all around. There’s something about this evening, as if he’s been handed a tiny, fragile thing, as if his hands are knives and Electra’s given him something, something dainty and breakable, and the thought terrifies him all of a sudden, but he just can’t tell why. Maybe it’s how angry Dinah was. He realises just now that he hasn’t thought of Dinah all night, not since…
Not since the kiss, anyway.
He’s standing alone in the yard, surrounded by dormant machines and pillars of metal, surrounded by silence and dark, by dust and loneliness. He pinpoints the feeling, catches it like a fleeting insect, recognises it as the feeling that he’s been given something that he desperately doesn’t want to fuck up. Part of him wants to go back to the station and beg for forgiveness from Dinah, Pearl, everyone, anyone; part of him wants to rush to Electra and fall on his knees and plead for repentance, salvation, forgiveness, to be blessed and cleansed and be a good man who doesn’t hurt people and live his life in stupid arrogance, he’s been so fucking stupid.
But another part of him, thin but encompassing like an exoskeleton, wants to run away. Run away from people he’s hurt and people he could hurt, run away from being a good person, he’s fast, he can escape them, he can run forever, until the oil wells go dry and he’s left in some foreign land to rust, wheat fields and flowers growing in his wake, until he’s overwhelmed by good things and dead.
He wants to cry. He wants to throw up.
He wants to kiss Electra again.
Greaseball stares at where the door was. The night has painted over it. It all just looks like an impermeable shadow. Electra disappeared through it and now he’s gone. Was he smiling? He doesn’t know. He didn’t even invite him in.
He can’t help but feel that the gates to heaven have just closed on him.