There's Nothing Past This

by Emily Townsend

That one. That bag in the overhead, the ripped corner, the brown strap seemingly torn by a feral dog, hanging off the brink. There’s an edge cubing the zipper, the size of gift card. It glows in the fluorescent lights. Even with all the suitcases jammed in no particular manner, just shoved up there recklessly, all the reusable grocery sacks teeming with non-perishable snacks, the smaller toiletry satchels and designer purses, you have no interest in those. You want that goddamn bag, and you will take it.

The Empire Builder chugs across the Burlington Northern Railroad Bridge 9.6 from Portland to Vancouver. Pretentious people depart; sensible people arrive. The bag remains. In the row next to you sits a pair of elderly-ish people. The short woman—next to the white-haired man-bunned man wearing open-faced sandals from presumably REI or some popular sports/recreational store and a typical fisherman’s plaid short-sleeved shirt—goes downstairs and returns smelling like smoke. There isn’t enough time for a smoke break, but she smokes anyway, probably hanging out the window by the larger luggage storage racks. You read the thin pink rectangle sheet that hangs by his bag. His stop is West Glacier, MT. You are 99% sure he’s going camping in the national park, or he’s being ostentatious and will do yoga at every stop because you spy a mat and foam block sticking out a different canvas bag. You are waiting for him to do this. Maybe it’s the woman instead, but she doesn’t look twice at the bag overhead. She sees you looking up. She nods at you as she sits down by the window. Somewhere in the sparks of her burnt umber eyes, you can see your older sister making plans.


Coins of light scintillate on the blue-green Columbia River. Northern Oregon’s trees are dry and fired-brown; southern Washington lush and clustered in verdant shadows. The currents lap in cartoonish w’s and crinkles like iridescent cellophane wrappers. The evergreens hide cars on the other side of the river, the summery gold air painting the water bronze. The inside of the train, when it’s hit by the sun, glows the passengers into full-fleshed skeletons and makes even the oldest person look young again.

You cannot stop thinking about the bag. You’ve seen this bag before. On the lateral block of Haight-Ashbury, in between public libraries in Eugene, weaving through campus in Corvallis. It’s a stoner’s bag, but this old man suggests otherwise, he carries something far more valuable than weed or drugs or drink. You try to determine the worth of stealing it, the worth of what’s inside. If it’s money, it’s a throwaway. Clothes, not necessary. Anyone can get those.


Smell the men reeking of piss, maple syrup and butt sweat; smell the passing woman’s greasy hair and her unchanged clothes lingering that horrifying scent of many-days-old, overpriced Danishes from the snack lounge. Every stretch permeates some sort of creased body odor. You have not showered in four days. The sink in the two-Converse shoes wide bathroom downstairs is not big enough for a baby’s bath. Deodorant cannot mask the perspiration from your armpits. You don’t care that you’re not clean. You care that you steal the bag in quiet daylight. It might’ve been your bag from a different lifetime.

He must’ve had this bag for over three decades. You can barely identify the symbol—four triangles intertwined, an albatross winging through the lines—marred off like a logo on a t-shirt washed too many times. It’s a game, you knew from adolescent years—sitting upside down on the thrifted, cat-peed couch while your older sister explained—to collect these bags at any cost. Nothing is a risk until there are consequences. An offbeat magazine had distributed only twenty-seven of these bags across the planet, each filled with a mysterious object, like the contents of an illegal Kinder Egg or a diamond ring from bath bombs. No one knows if each item is the same or a random algorithm of prohibited things. But what’s inside is worth so much more, if the owner of the bag had kept it in its rightful place. If the owner had lost the bag, he lost the game.

A lady nearby sprays a floral vanilla note into her elbow. The opened flatly-carbonated soda that a passenger carries down the aisle, the draft of a Tide-laundered blanket unfolding, it all does little to disguise your limbs creaking out stenches as you shift slightly in your seat. The woman is about to leave again, at Bingen-White Salmon, and the old man is poised to stand up.

But he remains standing, elongating his ancient, calcium-deficient bones, raising his arms above his shoulders, almost in a pull-up position hanging onto the overhead. Lemongrass soap from Whole Foods, you suppose, oozes from the swing of his arms, and you don’t remember seeing him swipe any sort of liquid on him while he was sitting; he had been sitting since the stop in Portland, munching on some dried carrots and apples. From the Shemanski Park Farmer’s Market, he had revealed to the woman, three bags for six bucks.

Oh, what a deal, she says. He winces every time she comes back, a walking, leathery cigarette stick.

You’re gonna die soon if you keep smoking.

You’ll probably die before me.

She makes eye contact with you and smirks, tucking a new cigarette behind her ear.


The slick arm rest of previous passengers’ dead skin meshes into your dead skin as you twist your torso, never losing sight of the bag. The bottom of your soles rub against the ridges of the footrest’s hard rung. You need new shoes. You’ve had the same knock-off Adidas for three years, the red felt half-flung off from the neighboring squirrel snacking on the laces, now technicolor rubber bands layered and knotted to keep the shoe together. The train slopes along the track, pulsing your body into a slow rhythm of collarbone-high water, and you desperately want to get off even though your stop isn’t for another day, another twelve halts of releasing and swallowing passengers. You don’t really want to see your other sister. Montana, is as boring as she is, with dilapidated shacks and the same tourist over and over wandering into the McDonald’s, appearance never changing, motives never changing.

The sun burns a globe of light onto your left arm, your cheeks ruddy from exposure to desiccated, recycled air. Your iPhone 4’s charger plugged into the side sears a slight blister into your thigh. As you wipe the oil from the bridge of your nose down to your chin, you see the old man looking back at you, staring through your -3.5 reader’s glasses from Trader Joe’s (but really they came from a dumpster outside the optometrist’s office after someone had abandoned these shitty things for newer, nicer frames). Is he bored? Are you bored? You don’t have everything you need, but you don’t need what others have.


In between cyclical songs of conductor announcements and dining car announcements and children announcing to their parents they have to potty, you devise a strategy. At the stop in Pasco, when the next person clumsily bumps into your chair because their bag got snagged in between seats, you will trip them. The old man will help them up. You will apologize. You will create a diversion. Fire! Grab the bag and run downstairs. This is my stop, you’ll say, even though you’re not due off until Cut Bank. Attendants don’t check for departures. They barely check for arrivals. The old man will never know it’s gone until Idaho merges into Montana.

But the freight trains are a real problem.

The BSNF trains roar into the dulling evening every twelve minutes or so—you’ve counted the contractions—and within a couple of these trains you notice the man wakes from an unplanned nap, or sniffles groggily, and you can’t exactly snatch the bag if he’s looking above him. The opening and closing of doors between cars whoosh when the train jerks to the tracks, when the wind shoves the whole thing into dark tunnels. With the earth sighing into the night you can’t quite see although there are soft blue lights lining the ceiling, and though it takes an average of ten minutes for one’s eyes to adjust to the dim atmosphere, anyone can at least make out a fuzzy shape reaching for something that is not theirs.

Your plan is slightly destroyed when the old man retrieves the bag, puts on blue socks, then slips back on the open-faced sandals, and the bag remains on the floor. He doesn’t trust you. He knows what you’re going to do. Shit. Shit. Surely he doesn’t know this game.

But your older sister taught you when someone suspects your next move, you must stick with the plan. Sweeten them up first, then punch.

Dehydration settles in your throat. The last crunch of a cranberry granola bar resides in the back corners of your wisdom teeth, and as you swallow, down goes the crumb. You start to choke.

Water, you croak.

The old man doesn’t look. The train slowly stutters into the station. Everyone had been gazing and Snapchatting the electric peony slice of sky fading behind the Pasco-Kennewick bridge and are now editing and captioning their photographs. Your older sister would see this as a distraction.

We’re allowing a ten-minute smoke break, the conductor says. Don’t stray too far.

The woman beside the old man jumps out, hoisting her tote over her shoulder, a Bic lighter already primed to click on fire. She kicks the bag into the aisle. He doesn’t notice.

With a hand on your throat, you snatch the bag, which is surprisingly light for its size, and you stumble down the walkway to the stairs, coughing as you bump into the corners, feeling the rubbered floor sting through your shoes, tasting some metallic air from the rails. You don’t even need to say you’ll be reboarding. The lobby is still open. A flash of wild burgundy hair from the little girl holding the door stops you from entering. She looks too much like your older sister. Her parents, somewhere inside the room, must be searching for her. Unless you’re confusing stories. It’s been so long.

You swallow the slight tint of humidity and stand up straight. Thumb the bag now, feel that corner, strike your broken cuticles across the zipper as you open it. A quilt, velvet turquoise patches stained with pineapple juice and saltwater, wraps around the box. Unfold it. Lay it out, let the others in the station see your calmed, crazed marvel, let the little boy ask what you’re doing, let the father yank him away. It’s all yours. Demand an audience.

I’ve found it, you shout.

No one listens.

The homeless band strumming split strings off to the side of the lobby peers around the corner. Their beats grow louder, throbbing echoes off the gravelly stone walls. Tell us, they sing out. No one here is coherent. No one knows what is missing.

Two minutes to board. Stragglers return and last-minute arrivals rush up. Tickets punched. QR codes scanned. You left your charger on the train. You left everything behind. But it was all worth it. You are making her proud. You will find her again.

Whatcha got there, the smoking woman says at the other end of the blanket.

You cower over the box, worrying she’ll steal your steal. You wouldn’t get it.

Glad I could help. She smooshes the cigarette on the ground. The embers spark a flicker onto the box and you hold it closer. A delicate rattle inside mirrors the tick of your pulse.

She walks back into Car 7, and at the rain-spotted window she points at what you have, the old man behind her. As the train slinks off to Montana, you see him scream.

Emily Townsend is a graduate student in English at Stephen F. Austin State University. Her works have appeared or are forthcoming in Superstition Reviewcream city reviewThoughtful DogNoble / Gas QtrlyThe Coachella Review and others. She is currently working on a second collection of essays in Nacogdoches, Texas.