The two women stood in the doorway between the kitchen and the dining room, arms folded, watching with cautious interest as the 10-year-old boy played with his model trains.
He had taken over the dining-room table, where he had set up a couple of loops of track, a passenger station and sidings on top of a green tablecloth. He was consumed, at this moment, with placing the wheels of some coaches on the tracks. It was a delicate task, getting the flanges just so on the insides of the rails.
The boy's mother, Edna, said to her friend, Sandra, "Michael's absolutely loving the trains. He hasn't stopped playing with them since Frank and I bought him the set last week. I don't want him down in the basement, where it's damp and he might catch a chill, and there's no spot for it in his bedroom, so we thought we'd let him set up here. It's not like we ever eat in here anyway, except at Christmas."
"Sure," said Sandra. "I get that." She lowered her voice to a whisper. "So no trouble since you got him interested in trains?"
Edna shook her head. "Not a one. I've been keeping a count of how many matchbooks we've got in the drawer and none of them have disappeared."
"That's encouraging," Sandra said. "That last time, when he set those bins of trash on fire out back of the house, you nearly lost the place."
Edna nodded. "It was a close one, that's for sure."
"Did the doctor say why he does that?"
"He said most kids are curious about fire, but there's a handful that take pleasure in it. They get a bit of a thrill."
"And Michael's one of those?"
Michael coupled two passenger cars together, then linked them to an engine. He plugged the transformer into a wall outlet, and made sure the two wires leading from the transformer were firmly attached to the terminal track.
Edna sighed. "We don't know for sure. If it was just the trash by the house, well, that'd be just one incident. But there was that fire in the classroom, and that thing with the little girl's shoelaces …"
"I heard about that. And the animals?"
Michael turned the throttle on the transformer and the train began to move. It circled the track, gaining speed.
Edna sighed. She really didn't want to talk about it. It was embarrassing, your child having all these problems. But at the same time, it was good to be able to share her troubles with someone.
"Well, again, we haven't had any incidents since we bought Michael the train set. It was the doctor's idea. Find something positive and fun for him to focus on."
"That's good then, isn't it?" Sandra said encouragingly. "It's all a question of pointing him in the right direction. Is old Mrs. Farnsworth next door still making a big issue over her cat?"
Edna gave her a sharp look. "She has so many of the damn things it's a wonder she even noticed one missing. If it hadn't been for the smell in the backyard, she might not have."
Sandra leaned her head so close she practically had it on Edna's shoulder. "He really grabbed hold of its neck and …"
Edna cut her off. "For all I know, he was just hugging it a little too tight. Young boys, sometimes they just don't know their own strength."
The train sped around the loop, so fast it was almost a blur. Michael had his chin on the table so he could watch the train at eye level.
Sandra whispered, "You must wonder, sometimes, what's going on inside his head. The things he must be thinking."
And what Edna was thinking, but did not say, was that she often really didn't want to know.
"The good thing is," Michael's mother said, "is that he's got his mind off dark things. He's really liking his trains. He's mesmerized by them. He and his father even went down to the station so Michael could watch how the tracks and the switches and whatever you call them all go together so he could make something just like that. We had to take him back to the store and buy more pieces of track and switches and …"
There was a sudden, loud, clatter. The train had fallen off the track and knocked the passenger station to the floor.
"Oh, dear!" Edna cried. "Are you okay?"
Michael looked at his mother and smiled. "I'm fine," he said. "It's okay." He bent down, picked up the station, and set it back on the table. Then he set about putting the train back on the tracks.
"What happened?" his mother asked. "Is it broken?"
"Nope," Michael said. "I was just running it too fast."
"But you're still having a good time?" she asked.
"Yup," he said. "I love it."
Edna smiled, and touched Sandra's arm. "The mums are going to have some tea now, Michael."
"Okay," he said.
Once the women were gone, Michael inspected his handiwork. He had taken just one match from one of the matchbooks in the kitchen drawer, from the middle of the pack where no one would notice.
He had placed it sideways on the track, thinking that, in size, it was pretty close in scale to a big piece of lumber. When the engine came around and the wheels caught it, the whole train went flying. Right into the passenger station.
Michael knew from his trip to the station with his father that there were several times a day, when people were waiting on the platform for a local train, that an express blew right through at high speed. He wondered if a real piece of wood, placed just right, would create the same result that it did right here on his dining-room table.
He could imagine the sound. Wheels scraping on rail. Cars buckling and crashing into each other. People screaming.
Michael'd had no idea trains could be this much fun.