1. Uncle Herbert Is a Bad Person
KATE KNEW ONLY TWO THINGS ABOUT HER UNCLE Herbert: He was very rich and totally irresponsible.
That was it. You’d think there would’ve been more—he was her uncle after all—but the thing was, she’d never actually met Uncle Herbert. She’d never even seen a picture of him. He was her mother’s brother, and her mother and Uncle Herbert didn’t get along.
Which was weird when you thought about it. I mean, Kate had a younger brother, Tom, and he was gross and horrible, but she couldn’t imagine not actually, you know, seeing him once in a while. But apparently with grown-ups that was a thing.
Uncle Herbert never came to visit. He never called. Where did he live? What did he do all day? Kate imagined him doing weird rich-people things, like traveling to remote islands, and collecting rare exotic pets and, I don’t know, buying an entire gingerbread house and eating it all by himself. That’s what she would’ve done.
But it was all a big mystery. The only thing Kate’s parents were clear on was that Uncle Herbert was lazy and that he had too much money and no sense of responsibility. It made Kate wonder how such a lazy, irresponsible person could’ve gotten his hands on all that money, but adults never explained contradictions like that. They only ever changed the subject.
Which isn’t to say that Kate’s parents were bad parents. They really weren’t. Parenting just never seemed to be right at the top of their list of priorities. They went to work early and came home late, and even when they were home they were always staring at their phones and their computers and making serious worky faces. Unlike Uncle Herbert, they worked all the time and were extremely responsible, though they never seemed to have much money to show for it.
Maybe that’s why he annoyed them so much. Either way, they never seemed to have much time for Kate.
Kate had plenty of time for Kate, though. Sometimes it seemed like too much. She rode her bike, and played video games, and did her homework, and played with her friends, and once in a while she even played with Tom. She wasn’t one of the kids in her class who had a special talent—like drawing, or juggling four beanbags at once, or identifying rare mushrooms and telling the difference between the ones you could eat and the ones that would kill you—though she often wished she was. She read a lot; she had to be told, with tiresome frequency, to close her book during dinner. Her parents sent her to piano lessons and tennis lessons. (They sent Tom to cello lessons and hapkido lessons.)
But some days, as she pounded away at the mahogany upright in the living room or punished the garage door with her forehands and backhands, Kate found herself feeling restless. Impatient. What was the point? She was young enough that all she had to do was kid things, but she was also getting old enough that she wanted to do more than play games and pretend. She felt ready for something more exciting. More real. Something that actually mattered.
But there wasn’t anything. Just toys and games and tennis and piano. Life always seemed so interesting in books, but then when you had to actually live it nothing all that interesting ever seemed to happen. And unlike in books, you couldn’t skip ahead past the boring parts.
That’s probably why, on the night before her eleventh birthday, Kate sat down and wrote her uncle Herbert a letter. It went like this:
Dear Uncle Herbert—
You’ve never met me but I’m your niece Kate, and since it is my birthday tomorrow and you are super rich do you think you could please send me a present?
Reading it over, she wasn’t sure it was the greatest letter anybody had ever written, and she wasn’t 100 percent sure that the word please was in the right place. But she thought it contained her personal truth, which her language arts teacher always said was the important thing. So she put it in the mailbox. Probably nobody would ever read it anyway because she hadn’t put an address on the envelope, because she didn’t know where Uncle Herbert lived. She didn’t even have a stamp for it.
Which made it all the more surprising when a present from Uncle Herbert arrived the very next morning. It was a train.
Kate didn’t especially want a train. It’s not like she was into trains, that was more of a Tom thing. Kate was more about books, and LEGOs, and Vanimals, these cute little animals that drove vans, which everybody in her class was insane about and which she liked, too, for some reason that she couldn’t really explain.
But after all she hadn’t asked for anything specific, and she guessed that her uncle probably didn’t have much experience with kids. So. Kate tried to be philosophical about these things.
What was really surprising, though, was how big it was. I mean this thing was really big. Like too big to send through the mail. It arrived at their house on a specially reinforced double-wide flatbed truck with twenty-eight wheels. Tom counted. It was giant and black and incredibly complicated. In fact it didn’t look like a toy at all, it looked like an actual, real, life-sized steam train.
That, Uncle Herbert explained, was because it was one.
Uncle Herbert had come to deliver it personally, in a banana-yellow Tesla so insanely sleek and tricked-out it looked like one of Tom’s Hot Wheels. He was fat, with thinning brown hair and a round, mild-mannered face. He looked like a history teacher, or somebody who might take tickets at an amusement park. He wore shiny blue leather shoes and a banana-yellow suit that perfectly matched his car.
Kate and Tom came running out to stare at the train. Kate had lots of straight brown hair cut to the length of her chin and a sharp little nose that gave her a slightly princessy look, though she wasn’t really especially princessy. Tom’s hair was short and blond and tufty, like a guinea pig that just woke up, but he had that same nose, which on him looked princely instead.
She was so surprised she couldn’t think of anything to say.
“That is a really big train” was all she came up with. It would have to do.
“It’s not a whole train,” Uncle Herbert said modestly. “Just the engine. And a tender—that’s the coal car right behind it.”
“How much does it weigh?” Tom asked.
“One hundred tons,” Uncle Herbert said crisply.
“What, exactly?” Kate said. “Like, it literally weighs exactly one hundred tons?”
“Well, no,” Uncle Herbert said. “It weighs a hundred and two tons. A hundred and two point three six. You’re right to be suspicious of overly round numbers.”
“I thought so,” said Kate, who was.
You really don’t appreciate how incredibly colossal a steam locomotive is till one shows up parked on the street in front of your house. This one was about fifteen feet high and fifty feet long, and it had a headlight and a smokestack and a bell and a whole lot of pipes and pistons and rods and valve handles on it. The wheels alone were twice her height.
Kate’s father came out of the house too. In fact most of the people on their street came out to look at the train. He put his hands on his hips.
“Herbert,” he said. “What the blazes is this?”
He didn’t really say blazes, but you can’t put the word he did say in a book for children.
“It’s a train,” Uncle Herbert said. “A steam train.”
“I can see that, but what’s it doing here? On a truck? So very close to my house?”
“It’s a present for Kate. And Tom, I guess, if she wants to share.” He turned to Kate and Tom. “Sharing is important.”
Uncle Herbert definitely didn’t have much experience with kids.
“Well, it’s a nice gesture,” Kate’s father said, rubbing his chin. “But couldn’t you have just sent her a toy?”
“It is a toy!”
“Well, no, Herbert, that’s not a toy. That’s a real train.”
“I suppose,” Uncle Herbert said. “But technically if she’s going to play with it, then sort of by definition it’s also a toy. If you think about it.”
Kate’s father stopped and thought about it, which was a tactical error. What he probably should have done, Kate thought, was lose his temper and call the police.
Her mother didn’t have this problem. She came tearing out of the house yelling.
“Herbert, you blazing blockhead, what the blaze do you think you’re doing? Get this thing out of here! Kids, get off the train!”
She said that last part because while all this was going on Kate and Tom had gotten up onto the flatbed truck and were starting to climb up the sides of the train. They couldn’t stop themselves. With all the pipes and knobs and spokes and whatnot it was like rock climbing.
They reluctantly got off it and retreated to a safe distance, but Kate still couldn’t stop looking at it. It was giant and black and complicated, with lots of fiddly little bits that obviously did interesting things, and a cozy little cab that you could sit in. It looked ominous and fascinating, like a sleeping dinosaur. The longer you looked at it, the more interesting it got.
And it was real. It was almost like she’d been waiting for it without knowing it. She kind of loved it.
Stenciled along the side of the tender, in small white capital letters, were the words:
That was its name. They’d written it with a long, thin arrow sticking through the letters.
2. Uncle Herbert Shows No Improvement
“IT’S NOT EVEN SILVER,” KATE’S FATHER SAID. “IT’S black. And what would you do with a silver arrow anyway?”
“Hunt werewolves,” Kate said. “Obviously.”
“And where would we even put it?” said her mother.
“Oh, I figured that out,” Uncle Herbert said. “We’ll set it up on some tracks in the backyard.”
“On some—! In the back—!” Kate’s mom was so angry she couldn’t even finish her sentences. “Herbert, you are such a blockhead!”
“We’re not putting train tracks in our backyard,” Kate’s father said. “That’s where my shade garden is going to go.”
“Oh, you don’t have to do it yourselves,” Uncle Herbert said proudly. “I’ve already done it! I got some workers to do it last night. I had them use muffled hammers so you wouldn’t wake up.”
Kate’s parents stared at Uncle Herbert. Privately Kate thought that for a guy in a banana-yellow suit he was turning out to be a pretty sharp operator. It occurred to her that this was a good practical application of something one of her heroes used to say, which is that sometimes it’s better to ask forgiveness than permission.
Grace Hopper said that. She was born more than a hundred years ago, in 1906. Back then the world was way too prejudiced to allow women to be computer programmers, and computers hadn’t been invented yet anyway, but in spite of all that Grace Hopper became a computer programmer and wrote the world’s first software compiler. By the time she died, at the age of eighty-five, she was a rear admiral in the navy.
They named an aircraft carrier after her. Grace Hopper was something of a role model for Kate.
Two hours later all five of them—Kate, Tom, Mom, Dad, and Uncle Herbert—were in the backyard, staring at the steam engine. It stood on a length of track on the thin burnt-yellow grass with the tender behind it. Together the two cars took up most of the yard.
Even Kate’s mom and dad had to admit they were pretty impressive.
“We could charge people money to sit in it,” Tom said.
“No way,” Kate said. “I don’t want weird strangers sitting in my private train with their weird butts.”
“Don’t say butts,” said her father.
“Cigarette butts,” Kate said. “Ifs, ands, or buts.”
“How old is it?” Tom asked.
“Don’t know,” Uncle Herbert said.
“How fast does it go?”
“Could the strongest man in the world lift it?”
“Don’t—wait, no, I know the strongest man in the world, and he definitely couldn’t lift it. Want to get in?”
They sure did. It was a bit of a scramble—the train was, as previously mentioned, really big, and definitely not built for kids—but Kate and Tom were expert scramblers, and there were a couple of iron steps welded to the side of it, and a bar to grab on to.
What happened next was actually a tiny bit disappointing, if Kate was being completely honest. Being inside the cab of a steam engine isn’t like being in the driver’s seat of a car, or a truck, or an airplane. For starters there’s no windshield, because the giant barrel of the boiler is in the way, so you can’t see what’s in front of you. There are two little portholes on either side, but they’re not much help. It’s more like a little room—the engine room of a ship maybe, but a really old ship without any computers or radar or anything.
Brass and steel tubes ran everywhere like overgrown vines, sprouting valve handles and buttons and cranks and glassed-in dials and more tubes. None of them had labels. The cab smelled like old oil, like at a car mechanic’s. It was definitely real, but it was also completely incomprehensible.
There were two fold-down seats. Kate and Tom folded them down and sat.
“Now I get why train drivers are always leaning out the window,” Tom said. “It’s the only way you can see where you’re going.”
“Yeah. Too bad we’re not going anywhere.”
Kate leaned out the window.
“Hey, Uncle Herbert, it’s weird in here!”
“We don’t know what to do!” Tom said. “There isn’t even a steering wheel!”
“You don’t steer a train,” Uncle Herbert said, squinting up at them. “You just go where the tracks go.”
There was no brake or gas pedal either, or not that Kate could see.
“Is there a whistle?” Kate asked.
“Yes,” Uncle Herbert said. “It’s a steam whistle, though. Doesn’t work without steam.”
Kate and Tom wandered around spinning wheels and pulling levers and moving anything else that moved. None of it did anything. It looked cool, but they were kind of at a loss how to play with it. They opened a kind of stove thing set into the wall. It was full of cold ashes and soot.
Tom pretended it was a tank and stood on his seat and machine-gunned an army of invisible Nazis out the window, but you could tell his heart wasn’t a hundred percent in it.
Then they climbed down again. It was all a little anticlimactic.
“You know what we should do?” Kate said when they were back on the ground. “We should connect these tracks with the old ones in the woods.”
There were some rusty old tracks out there, buried in leaves and sunk in the mud—she and Tom found them one day when they were out exploring.
“Those old things?” their father said. “Been a long time since a train ran on those tracks.”
“All right, everybody!” Their mom clapped her hands for attention. “It’s Kate’s birthday today! Who remembers when my birthday is?”
“Next week,” Kate said.
“That’s right. One week from now. That’s how long you can keep the train. Then, as your birthday present to me, Herbert, you’re going to get rid of it.”
“What?!” Kate said.
“But what if I already got you something else?” Uncle Herbert said in a small voice.
“Did you get me a flatbed truck hauling away a gigantic blazing steam train?” Kate’s mom put her hands on her hips. “Is that my birthday present?”
“Then whatever it is, send it back. For my birthday you’re going to get this thing out of here.”
“No!” Kate shouted before she even knew what she was doing. “You can’t! It’s mine!”
3. Kate Said a Lot of Other Things, Too
KATE TOLD HER PARENTS THAT SHE HATED THEM AND that they were the meanest and worst people in the world. She said she never got anything special or good, and even when she did they always ruined it. She said they didn’t love her and all they cared about was their stupid phones.
I wish I could tell you that she said these things in a calm, reasonable tone, but she didn’t. She yelled them as loudly as she could.
Then she said that this was the worst birthday ever, and her mother told her to go to her room, and she said Fine, I will, and she slammed the door, even though at that exact same moment her mom was yelling at her not to slam the door. Kate stayed in her room for the rest of the afternoon.
None of the things Kate had said were strictly true, except maybe the one about it being her worst birthday ever, although when she was two she’d had a fever and spent her whole birthday throwing up, so it was a close call.
Deep in her heart Kate knew that. She knew that her problems weren’t real problems, at least not compared with the kinds of problems kids had in stories. She wasn’t being beaten, or starved, or forbidden to go to a royal ball, or sent into the woods by an evil stepparent to get eaten by wolves. She wasn’t even an orphan! Weirdly, Kate sometimes caught herself actually wishing she had a problem like that—a zombie apocalypse, or an ancient curse, or an alien invasion, anything really—so that she could be a hero and survive and triumph against all the odds and save everybody.
Which of course she knew was wrong. She just wanted to feel special. Like somebody needed her. And obviously, having a steam engine wasn’t going to make her special. Obviously. But she’d felt special for a bit. And now her mom was going to send it back to wherever steam engines came from.