Short story: Little Trilly builds a steam engine

“Are you sure this will work?” Dawson asked. He leaned against the corrugated zinc sheet that formed the wall of the shed and watched Trilly worked on her frankenstein creation. The midday sun shone down, turning the little metal shed into a hothouse. Dawson stood in the doorway so that he could get a bit of the cooling breeze that blew up from the river.

“It will work,” Trilly replied confidently as she tightened a bolt. She ran her hand along the metal frame, checking and double-checking that everything was as secure as possible. She also applied a few more drops of oil to the gears, even though she had just oiled them yesterday. When she was satisfied that everything was in order, Trilly strapped on the helmet and goggles that laid beside her.

“Now stop standing around and help me,” she told Dawson.

Dawson hurried over and helped Trilly into a vehicle that looked like the offspring of a bicycle and a wheelchair. Trilly had salvaged the wheel and handlebars of a bicycle and attached it to the front of a wheelchair. The back of the seat was strengthened so that Trilly could attach an cast iron pot which she had modified to fit her purposes. Multiple metal pipes ran from the pot to the wheelchair, branching off to attach themselves to different parts of the machinery. Right at the bottom was a rectangular metal box filled with twigs and branches that she and Dawson had gathered.

“Ready?” Dawson asked from behind her. There was excitement in his voice.

Trilly tightened the seat belt buckle with a loud metallic click. Then she flexed her fingers before grasping the handles firmly. “Ready.”

Dawson bent down and set the small heap of twigs alight. The twigs were so dry that they caught fire easily. Dawson stepped back and surveyed his handiwork. “How long will it take?” he asked.

“Probably a few minutes,” Trilly began and stopped. She felt a slight vibration as the piston began to move. “Actually, I think it might be ready,” Trilly said as she released the brakes. The wheelchair began to move slowly.

“It works!” Dawson cried.

“Told you it will work.” There was a smug smile on Trilly’s face. “Come on, let’s get this thing outside and see how well it does.”

Dawson pushed the wheelchair out of the shed and set it on the road. Earlier in the week, they had measured and marked out a course through the settlement. Staring down the empty road, Trilly’s mouth suddenly felt parched. She swallowed drily. Now that the big moment was here, Trilly suddenly found that she wasn’t looking forward to it. What if it didn’t work? It would mean all the past weeks were for nothing.

Unaware of the thoughts that were going through Trilly’s mind, Dawson looked at his watch, counting down the seconds. “Ok, go!” he cried when the second hand was standing upright.

Trilly set off down the road with her heart beating loudly. This was the moment when she would know whether it was a success or failure. The wheelchair quickly picked up speed as the fire greedily consumed the dry twigs. The vibrations grew stronger as the gears and levers worked to keep up with the increasing energy. Every few minutes, there was a slight hiss when the excessive steam escaped. Trilly started to relax and enjoy the feeling of speeding down the street. Everything worked perfectly.

Trilly turned the handlebars sharply as she reached the first turn of the course. She took the corner a bit too fast and felt one of the wheels lifting slightly off the ground. Trilly quickly shifted her weight and the wheelchair righted itself. Feeling full of confidence, Trilly turned around and gave Dawson a big victory sign.

Dawson’s reaction was not what she expected. There was a look of surprise on his face and he cried out a warning, frantically pointing down the street. Trilly looked at where Dawson was pointing. She was heading straight for a large ditch in the road! It wasn’t there when they checked two days ago. There was just enough space at the side of the ditch for a person, or possibly a wheelchair, to pass through. She quickly swerved to the side, barely missing the hole. Just as it looked as if Trilly was going to make it through, one of the wheels hit the safety barrier surrounding the ditch. The impact caused the wheelchair to skid and swerve wildly across the road. Trilly desperately battled to regain control of her vehicle.

Trilly yelled as she crashed through Mrs Quillback’s watermelon patch. The wheelchair mercilessly plowed through the ripening fruits. Watermelon rinds and juice splattered everywhere. Watermelon pulp covered Trilly’s goggles and she used her sleeve to wipe them clean. Sweet watermelon juice dripped down her chin. The wheelchair continued moving forwards, leaving broken watermelons in its wake. Trilly pressed on the brake handle so hard that the metal dug into her hand but the wheelchair kept on going. Trilly suddenly realized that the brakes must had been knocked loose by the impact.

“Brakes! Press the brakes!” Dawson yelled as he ran to catch up.

“It’s not working!” Trilly yelled back.

Freed from the vines that littered Mrs Quillback’s garden, the wheelchair increased in speed, carrying Trilly out of the village. A few goats grazing in the fields ran out of the way, bleating loudly in protest. In front of Trilly, the river shimmered in the sun like a long silvery snake. Trilly grasped the handles. She had to change direction soon or the wheelchair would head straight into the river. No, wait! The river is where she wanted to go. The water will extinguish the fire that is fueling the steam engine. No steam, no movement. There was no time for Trilly to ponder the consequences of her plan. She aimed the wheelchair towards the river, heading for a spot that looked like it was deep enough.

Trilly clenched her teeth as the wheelchair rolled over the pebbles that lined the river banks. Each bump sent shockwaves up her body. Then the wheelchair ran over a big rock, sending it airborne for a few seconds. It landed in the river with a loud splash and started to sink. Trilly tried to swim towards the surface but she continued descending deeper. Looking down, she realized that she was still strapped to the wheelchair. Trilly reached down to free herself. In her panic, her fingers fumbled as she tried to unlock the buckle. After several unsuccessful attempts, Trilly tugged at the seat belt desperately. It was taking too long and Trilly was acutely aware that she was running out of time and air. Her vision was starting to go dark around the edges. Before Trilly blacked out, she saw an arm appearing in her view.

Trilly woke up in her own bed. Seeing her daughter awake, Trilly’s mother hurried to Trilly’s side. Taking Trilly’s face in both her hands, Mother asked anxiously, “How are you feeling?”

Trilly glanced around her bedroom. Grandfather was sitting near the door, watching the mother and daughter. The mangled bicycle-wheelchair frankenstein creation leaned against wall next to Grandfather. Trilly suddenly felt a pang of guilt as she looked at the wheelchair and quickly looked away.

“Are you feeling alright?” Mother asked again.

“I’m okay, Mom,” Trilly replied.

“You sure?” Mother peered anxiously at Trilly. “You didn’t injure yourself or anything?”

“Yes, I’m okay.”

Mother sighed with relief. She took a deep breath as if preparing herself. When Mother turned towards Trilly again,  she yelled angrily, “What in the world do you think you’re doing? Building yourself a race car without proper supervision? Are you trying to kill yourself?” For the next hour, Mother continued to inform Trilly at the top of her voice exactly what she thought of Trilly and her reckless behavior.

“… And you’re grounded for the rest of your life!” Mother finished.

“Mom!” Trilly protested.

“Don’t you ‘Mom!’ me! This is your punishment for doing something so stupidly dangerous. If you can’t stay out of trouble, you will stay at home until you learn some self-control. At least this way, I know you won’t be trying to kill yourself every five minutes.”

Trilly sneaked a look at Grandfather. There was no expression on his face. At least he wasn’t angry, which was an encouraging sign. Trilly decided to try her luck.

“Grandpa,” Trilly began, but Mother immediately moved in front of Trilly, blocking her view of Grandfather.

“Don’t you try hiding behind your grandfather,” Mother admonished. “And you, don’t you dare take her side,” Mother glared threateningly at Grandfather.

“Don’t worry, I’m not.” Turning to Trilly, Grandfather said, “Young lady, you should be ashamed of yourself for making your mother worry the whole day.”

Trilly got the hint. She lowered her head and tried to look remorseful. “I’m sorry, Mom. I promise to that this won’t happen again.”

“Don’t make promises you can’t keep,” Mother muttered but she looked less angry, even though she still eyed Trilly with suspicion as if she could not quite believe what she heard from her daughter.

Grandfather coughed delicately. “You are tired, Alice. Here, let me make you a nice cup of tea.” Grandfather steered Mother towards the door. “Let’s all get some rest. We can discuss what to do about today’s exciting escapade tomorrow.”

Left alone in her room, Trilly closed her eyes. She was more tired than she realized and the pain and aches in her body were making themselves known. Before Trilly drifted off to sleep, she could hear Grandfather making soothing noises as he put the kettle on the boil.

The next day, Grandfather brought Trilly to his workshop. He guided her past the half-constructed cars and shelves cramped full of metal parts. Grandfather stopped Trilly in front of a workbench. “This will be your work station. Your mother and I had discussed it and we thought that it is best if you help out here until you have earned enough to pay for all the damages you’ve caused,” he said.

“What will I do?”

“You can start by dismantling the old machines for spare parts. And when you are done with that, I will find something else for you to do. If you don’t make your mother angry again for the rest of the week, maybe I will even let you help out on some of the cars in the workshop.”

“Oh.” Trilly reached out and lightly touched a tool lying on the workbench. She liked hanging out in Grandfather’s workshop, surrounded by the smell of machine oil and grease. It wasn’t much of a punishment and Trilly knew that she had gotten off easy.

There was a cough. Grandfather added. “Mrs Quillback is very upset about the damage to her garden. As an apology, we bought up every watermelon she has.”

Trilly looked at Grandfather, her eyes widening. “You mean… ?”

“Yes,” Grandfather nodded solemnly. “You will be having watermelon for breakfast, lunch and dinner for the next few weeks.”


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