The ground trembled when the trains came by, vibrating the bones in their ankles and knees as the countless boxcars barreled on, clanking like warring titans beating steel fists. The neighborhood children loved to lay pennies and quarters on the tracks to see them flatten under the thunderous wheels, erasing their faces and elongating their bodies.
Elias got off the bus with his cousins, Celine and Greta, even though he was from the next neighborhood over, because that’s where almost all of the kids got off. A gaggle of them from up and down the block and surrounding streets, their numbers changing every afternoon and every minute. Every day they all poured out of the bus, ran to dump their backpacks at home or in the hedges and grab their bikes and scooters. The wild lots, brambles, and disintegrating buildings around their neighborhood a wide open world to dominate and survey until their parents got home after five. Two and a half hours of sovereignty, a brief eternity. They kicked empty beer cans around the corpse-soot of a dead bonfire that was hidden behind the half decayed house among waist high grass, or they played in the creek filled with storm water coming from the six-foot-wide concrete culvert in the thin outcropping arms of the woods. A wild field with long shaggy hides of brown grass and weeds with an interminable gouge of train track that split the expanse. A sagging rusty playground with limp chains and seat-less swings, a rough metal slide textured with orange rust like snake skin. Sequestered backyards, cloisters of cul-de-sacs, barren streets and boundless woods.
Elias’ brother, Stewart, went off with his high school friends, shooting Elias threatening glares and promises of Indian burns later when he tried to follow, so he stayed behind with his cousins and their friends. He trailed around the outskirts of the group, just like he did at school. At school he could read quietly at his desk, or play in the dirt alone behind the tree on the playground for the dragging thirty minutes. But here, after the bus ride, while his dad was still down at the motor shop covered in pungent oil and his mom sweating ink from her fingertips and jotting down final messages, he could and wanted to do anything, everything. Here there was movement, there was freedom from rules and regulations and homework and silent lunch, there were the last warm rays of a cooling summer sun that still brought his blood to boil with exuberance. So he tried to find his way in to the circle of friends as they cavorted, but there was always another back that slid in front of him, cutting him out, a voice that rose over his, a ball that was caught before his outstretched hands.
After two hours of sweating and running and laughing, hunting honeysuckles and drinking from hoses, it was Celine who suggested visiting the train tracks. She had seen a movie with her sister last night where the getaway car had just narrowly missed instant death by collision, and the chasing cops were flattened and blown into the air like twisted metal confetti. She described the destruction with sweeping arms that whipped her braids, wide eyes and spit flying from the percussive sound effects. Ever eager for her lead, and for chaos and violence, the children imagined, gasped in awe, and agreed to go, Elias puffing along behind.
The train came everyday around four-fifteen. Teens and kids alike would sit on the bank in groups, sometimes alone, and watch them go by. Dozens, occasionally hundreds of cars of all shapes, sizes, colors, textures, designs, and unknown origins and destinations rolled by until they were no longer discernible beyond the first moment of catching the eye, memory blending them together into aggregated harsh-edged blurs. Most were corrugated and ribbed, black, brown and red. Matted dirt and weather-worn graffiti fading like temporary tattoos from the fair. Beautiful, bizarre, bold, and brief. Some carts were skeletal and opened to the air, some merely an empty platform baked by the sky as if a beaten desert were hitchhiking to gentler climes.
The group liked to race along and try the impossible task of keeping up with the train, or making up stories of what would be inside. Zoo animals, criminals, alien salvage, werewolves and dragons; they imagined action sequences on the top of the cars, gun fights, wild chases, swords and ninjas, and cowboys with horses running along on the ground. Elias once even described the train engine spewing gold clouds and lifting off the tracks, soaring into the air in spiraling loops and curls like a grimy, boxy dragon.
It was Amar that came up with the idea. He, like Greta and Celine, and most of the kids in their exploits, derived inspiration from the warm fuzzy static screens of televisions. He had seen an old black and white silent movie where a guy in funny clothes performed stunts like leaping across the gaps between skyscrapers, or jumping out of a moving car and rolling down a big hill, or laying underneath a train deathly still until it rolled past, standing up unharmed and strolling along as if nothing happened.
It was Byron that dared to do it. He was a friend of Stewart’s, depending on who you asked. If you asked Elias, he would have called him Stewart’s acquaintance. Byron and a group of boys in high school were responsible for some of the beer cans throughout the neighborhood, and the strange skunk smell that made them sluggish and red-eyed, which led the kids to believe a poison gas exuded from a crack in the earth’s core just below the abandoned house. The kids tried to steer clear of the older boys, as they could be mean. They would pinch Greta, Celine, and Keisha, pulling their ponytails, while the younger boys often evaded barrages of airborne sticks and rocks, onslaughts of wedgies, noogies, and indian burns. But Byron had overheard their conversation, sitting at the edge of his group, and the older boys picked at the wild story with derision, bravado, and fear soaked in the smell of sweat, adrenaline, and contagious swings of budding testosterone.
The sun was shifting into its evening palette as the two groups mingled, half with juice boxes and soda cans pilfered from home fridges, half with beers and joints smuggled through secret but well-known channels. Byron lay down on the track. The sun glazed his burned neck and dirty hair in ochre, the dead brown grass eating at the gravel track ballast with lustful razor teeth. The muddy brown rails simmered in the afternoon warmth as he lowered his back and head onto the wooden crossbars, checking his waterproof digital watch: four-twelve. Despite the dissent of reason in a few weak squeaking voices, Keisha’s and Elias’ mostly, begging him to stop, saying what a stupid and dangerous idea it was, every one of them fell silent to the crackle of dead grass in the wind, the wispy whines of gnats in thin smoke clouds overhead, and the space between them all hollowing for the anticipation.
The ground was already beginning to gurgle. The train was early. It hailed loudly as it came around the corner fast. Very, very fast.
Byron sucked his arms into his trunk, scrunching his face tight, holding his breath and closing his eyes, his body shivering. To Amar, he looked the way an egg does when it’s frying on a pan, like his Baba would make on Saturday mornings, bubbling and rippling while staying as flat as possible. Amar thought about how the yolks sometimes broke, and the gold bled out. The thought of food, the phantom memory-smell of it, made him nauseous now.
Elias was struck by a series of thoughts, moments before the front of the engine swallowed Byron whole. Elias had seen him in his home with his older brother and friends playing Nintendo 64, watching MTV and eating popcorn, throwing the football in the backyard, yelling at Elias to go away and play with the other babies. But more often than not, Elias had seen the boy sitting by himself on the hill of brittle grass watching the trains come and go, sulking in shadows outside the herds as they drank and laughed, walking home by himself. Byron had always been quiet, and always been sad. Last choice for all teams, picked on the most and the hardest for his unwashed clothes, his dirty hair, how skinny he was, how he wore sweaters in the scorching throttle of summer. It saddened him, but in a way it made him feel something else, like when he read a book and felt like the brave knight, the courageous orphan, the chosen one in the story had feelings exactly like he did. Like there was someone else just like him. In a strange, quiet way, it made him happy, to see that there were others just outside the circles. Elias wondered if that had anything to do with this death-defying stunt.
It also occurred to Elias that the stuntman Amar had seen had probably planned ahead. He probably knew how to lay underneath a train. He probably knew the exact height of the train’s undercarriage, the thickness of the rails, the depth and width of the slats beneath the track. He probably knew the cameraman, the director, the train conductor. He probably had inspected the undercarriage of the train before laying down in its path. Byron had no such planning or knowledge. None of them did. And they did not know.
The bones in their ankles and knees buzzed and their chests trembled, mouths dry at the first taste of true, tangible danger in their lives.
They did not know that the train had departed behind schedule, and the conductor was breaking regulation by increasing the speed well above allowance for city limits, ticking up over forty-five miles an hour.
The train engulfed Byron. It ran on without hitch or pause, smooth sailing, full steam ahead.
They did not know that in a train yard four hundred and eighty-two miles north of their homes and school and playgrounds, that a man in Pennsylvania was newly divorced, and drinking at eight in the morning, stumbling toward the end of his shift in the train yard inspecting the locomotive before it left, rushing through trying to make up for delays. They did not know that he was one strike for drinking away from being fired. They did not know that as the sun rose he pulled a flask from his overalls as if scratching an itch absently on his nose, that he did not clear all the chassis and carriage connections properly. They did not know that this man would lose his job days later, solely for the fact that he drank and clocked in late, and that his anguish would have nothing to do with what his actions were about to cause. That of all the things that bloated and corroded his conscience, the lamentable things that pushed his wife and kids and friends away and excommunicated him outside the circle he had built for himself where he could only see their back and hear their voice he had loved dimly directed anywhere else, that this was one terrible thing he would never know that he did.
The train plowed on. The wheels beat in heavy revolutions, tearing away at the two long lines that carried them. The group of young spectators ran back and forth in fear, trying to catch a glimpse of Byron, trying to see movement, hear a scream. There was a small space of light between the wheels, but they passed so quickly that it was hard to see. Keisha shouted, pointed, voice raw with terror and exultation. There was Byron, under there, blinking and immobile like a corpse, but then he turned his head and looked at them, eyes wide and panicked, chest heaving, but smiling.
They all cheered, clapping, jumping, the shaking ground shooting them skyward as they released all their pride, excitement, concern, relief. They had never seen the train move so fast, they had never seen something so exciting in person, they had never been so proud or in awe of one of their own. They all knew a hero, and felt elevated themselves by it, as if they too had shared in the glory and gumption in the act of watching it happen.
The train trumpeted in fury, the pistons, axles, hooks, bolts, belts rattled their fists, and the children cheered back and egged them on.
It was all so loud that none of them, especially not Byron, would have been able to see or hear it before it came. Even if they had, there was nothing that could be done about it. Tragedy had set its course, and it would run to the end.
The disheveled man in the Pennsylvania train yard had neglected to unwrap a chain from a bogie. But the whiskey in the metal flask had still been cold and burned just the way he liked it, and the condensation soaked red bandana he wrapped around it for concealment still smelled like his ex-wife, apricots and menthol, and so the chain went unheeded as he stumbled on. It had rattled suspended in the claustrophobic compartment of air all the way down to Rowan County, North Carolina. Two intruders in this pocket of air that smelled of oil, chafed metal, and the char of friction, both of them in places they had no right to be, not ever, especially at the same time, on the same day. The only times either of them would ever be there.
The children on the outside never saw the chain, and neither did Byron. He died immediately when it split his skull open, and it clutched at him with a grip instant and irresistible. To the children outside, it just looked as if he sat up. Not for any good reason. Maybe he thought the last car had already gone by. It seemed as if an invisible hand had grabbed a fistful of hair and yanked him upward.
Celine and Greta dreamed about it every night for years, and even when they were grown and married it still came to mind once every strange feverish night, but they never talked about it with each other, or their husbands, or therapists. They always remembered in detail but never described how Byron’s body seemed to roll in on itself like a chameleon’s tongue. As if he secretly had been walking around all this time with putty in his frame instead of bones. In fact, they hardly talked at all for a long time, no longer offering the lead, content to reticence.
Amar threw up, and could never look at another train for the rest of his life without feeling nauseous, and seeing Bryon in that condensed trench folding in half, then half again, then tumbling into a flailing formless shadow that ricocheted up and down, in and out, the outlines becoming looser and abstract. He grew up to buy a house in the suburbs, his office never more than a mile away, and a silent, air-tight Prius to get him there. He nestled himself into the silence, where nothing rattled, trumpeted, or quaked under his feet, and ever after preferred cereal with his morning tea.
Keisha moved away that summer. She had a stack of love poems that Byron had stuffed in her backpack, and kept hidden away because she had been twelve and Byron sixteen, and she knew her parents would have killed him. When she grew and went to college, her first apartment, her first house, she kept them in a box of old junk from her bedroom that she pulled out once every few years. Each time she put it away, she felt his image and memory were receiving more of a burial than the strewn debris that had been wrung out in the field.
Elias always thought about how it never stopped, not the rumbling, not the sound of metal, not the stench. Even after the train was long gone out of sight, and they saw Byron’s body strewn out and elongated like pennies and quarters, faceless and stretched in thin pieces and ribbons. He thought about how nothing seemed to ever stop. How so much of life turned into a bittersweet blur, yet a chance moment of visceral carnage, random, cruel, pointless, could linger and stain so vividly even until the last day that the pearly gates themselves clanged together like crude, dirty steel.
Their parents came home after five, the police were there shortly after.
The blood trail dripped on past the horizon for miles. Byron’s mother cried for months and forever grieved. The city held a vigil, and began building chicken wire fences along the track with warning signs. Both the endeavor and the memorial were quickly forgotten. The high school put a special page in the yearbook and honored him at homecoming. They remembered him with varying degrees of misremembered fondness, depending on who you asked. If you asked Elias, he would have told you that Byron had finally gotten inside the circle.
The Pennsylvania man no longer worked in the train yard, but drank at the bar every night after work as a janitor, returning home to an empty, dirty apartment, wondering why he had the worst luck in the world, why did life or God hate him so much, pacing within his own lonely circle of loathing. He did not have to clean the blood, or the bits of flesh that were stuck to the undercarriage discovered at the next train stop. He did not untangle the pendulum of gore that he had hung. A sin unknown, never stirred into the brew that rotted him from the inside out every night.
Elias came back to visit years later, while his kids were napping at their grandparents, walking outside the circle he had built for himself for just a moment, thinking less about the now and to be and trading it in the hallowed wild fields that quiet evening for what was. He sat down on the hill, sweating in the heat that lingered steadfast in the beginning of fall, wondering if he should have invited his brother. If he would have come.
The ground no longer trembled, its shuddering calmed and lapsed into a stillness that was thick and sticky. The grass around the train tracks grew ever taller, as fewer feet tread in that field until even the trains stopped coming by, saddened by the memory. Heavy feet and lingering tears wandered away as far as they could, but the place had no choice but to stay and grow, until the yearning woods reclaimed it all under the omnipotent circle of the cooling sun.