BY SHANE JOSEPH
A version of this piece was published in Hill Spirits II, an anthology by writers of Ontario’s Northumberland County (Blue Denim Press) in 2015. This story will also appear in the author’s new collection of short stories Crossing Limbo ( Blue Denim Press), expected to be published in 2017/2018. Copyright is held by the author.
HE LIMPED down the pathway, between the rows of houses, and approached the water. This new estate had taken over his small community, distorting home prices, bringing newcomers, and appending the town as another suburb of the pulsing city that lay hidden behind the curve of the lake. The cancer in his leg had leeched into the bone, a slow but relentless crawl, like the urbanization that he had tried to escape when he had fled the city. There is no escape. Then he heard the train whistle, a luring siren. There is . . .
He paused for breath; his heart was not so good anymore and he had forgotten to take his pills. But it didn’t matter now. None of those multicoloured, multi-sized potions that he took for a variety of ailments mattered anymore. One for high-blood pressure, one for cholesterol, one to thin his blood, one for pain, one for his ulcer, the other for his prostate, ointments for his haemorrhoids, and sprays for his lungs and nasal passages weakened by years of inhaling polluted city air, carpet dust and pollens.
The train howled as it roared past, like a dragon from one of his books, eliminating anything in its path, hauling the nation’s goods from east to west and back, and oblivious to the pollution it brought to the tiny towns it cut through on its relentless mission. Recently, an entire community had been wiped out in Quebec when a parked train had woken up and decided to roll back into the little town and unleash its toxic cargo among sleeping inhabitants. But tonight, the train would be his saviour.
When he came to the embankment, the last of the carriages were moving away, heading west, the whistle was blowing faintly ahead of the string of black cylindrical rail cars. He would take the next one, and there were plenty to choose from because both national rail lines ran parallel to each other, a few yards apart, on this stretch of their trans-Canadian journey. In the dark, beyond the lines, the waves of Lake Ontario lapped the shore; the wind was up tonight, and so was the moon, casting an eerie glow on the lush foliage that had yet to wilt in the summer heat.
He used his flashlight to find a footing and inch down the embankment. Midway, his weak foot slipped and he slid, landing on his back at the stony bottom. Pain shot from the cancerous knee, travelling through his body and exiting in a muffled scream through bared lips.
He crawled over the last stretch to within a couple of feet of the CN track and rolled over on his back to catch his breath. The moon looked benignly upon him, summoning him. In the last year, this glowing orb, whenever it chose to show itself, had been his only companion, an entity he could talk to, particularly on nights when the insomnia had him in an unrelenting vice. Damn! I used to run up these hills for hours just for exercise, only a few years ago. How quickly we decay when purpose is lost.
He turned on his side. Something moved, between the CP track and the lakeshore. He shone his torch and caught what looked like a bundle of clothes. He laughed hoarsely. A scarecrow from the fields, transplanted to the tracks — perhaps to scare away the trains!
Then the bundle moved and he saw the girl.
She would do it tonight. She was resolved. Dashing her cell phone to pieces so that those horrible images would not plague her anymore was the act of defiance that told her she could do this. She had been careful to collect the shattered pieces of the mobile device from her bedroom and deposit them in a municipal garbage container on her way down to the lake — she did not want Mom and her boyfriend finding out, until . . . until afterwards.
No more calls from those bitches she had once called friends. “Hey Rita, we saw you on the Tube. Didn’t know you gave head so well . . .” No one had seen the knife held to her back, forcing her to comply.
Home offered no solace. She had never known her father who had been “out West” since she could remember. Her mother was too busy trying to look attractive for her new guy, Brad. He was 10 years younger, and often gave Rita the salacious eye when he’d had one too many beers, especially when the Leafs lost to the Habs and he had that “I want revenge” look on his face. She would lock her bedroom door on those nights and hear Mom take the brunt of his frustration in the adjoining room. Mom applied extra rouge and make-up and avoided her gaze the following morning. “What do you expect a single mom bagging groceries to do, huh?”
Her world had shrunk after that infamous sleepover party, when her friend Sandy had invited “the boys” over for the night that Sandy’s parents had gone out of town. At first it had been fun — beer and dancing to techno music. But then the crack had emerged, and the knife, and the party had taken on a sinister tone. But she had been too drunk to figure out whether this was a game or the beginning of the end of her life. Her friends had shunned her on the morning after; then the teachers began looking at her strangely. Mom’s only comment was that she should “get over it and move on, and not go for any of those wild parties again.”
The world had closed in. Sleeping pills hadn’t helped. When she OD’d at home they rushed her to the hospital and had her stomach pumped, and that damned counsellor who was assigned to her was a bigger bitch than her school teacher, or Mom. No, she had to do this away from home and school, from the narrow confines of her sheltered life. This act of defiance had given her a sudden boost of energy she had not felt in months.
She had watched the old man come down the embankment, or fall down, more appropriately. He seemed to be in pain, just as she was. She had wanted to rush to his aid at first, but held back. Now he was shining his flashlight in her face.
“Stop,” she yelled.
“Shining that fucking light in my face.”
The flashlight went out, leaving her in a halo of blindness. His shape started to re-emerge as the circle shrank.
“What are you doing here this time of night?” he called out. His voice was raspy, protective. He sounded too old, and ill, to be dangerous.
“It’s a good night to die,” she said. She wanted to shock the old coot.
He chuckled. “Didn’t know I was going to have spectators.”
She suddenly realized why he was here. “I didn’t either.”
He went silent. The flashlight came on again, this time trailing up from her feet and stopping short at her neck. “You’re too young.”
“Like, what’s your reason? The nursing home not keeping you medicated?”
“I’ve got too many medications. And I live in my own apartment. What’s yours?”
The flashlight went out. Now they only had the moonlight, but she did not need that glow for their voices had connected on a wavelength that needed no illumination.
“Everything’s fucked-up. School, home . . . everything.”
“Ah — that.”
“Don’t patronize me.”
“No! They have morning-after pills for that.”
“Then what you got to die about? You look healthy.”
“Have you heard about Facebook and You Tube and Twitter?”
“Oh yes. I never use them.”
“They made a video.” She began sobbing.
He wanted to go over the tracks and comfort her. Hold her in his arms like the daughter he had never had, the family he’d had no time and opportunity to create. He dragged himself over the steel track on his side but caught his lame foot between the ties. Shit. I’m in no position to help now. But I’m in perfect position for the train.
“I’d come over if I could,” he apologized. “But it looks like I’m kinda stuck.”
Her sobbing turned to laughter. “You won’t make a gallant knight.” Her voice had a shrill treble, as if hysteria lurked in the higher octave.
He laughed too, resignedly. “I guess not. I make better road kill . . . or rail kill.”
She rose, took a deep breath, and sprawled awkwardly over the other track beside him. He smelled her trace of stale perfume and the sour one of fear.
“I guess we could toss a coin for which train comes first — yours or mine. Or which one is delayed.”
“They say the neck is the best part to place on the steel. Sort of like the guillotine.”
“I can’t stand your jokes anymore,” she screamed. She was hugging onto the rails as if scared that she would change her mind. He saw her pale hair in the moonlight. She had a pretty face. She couldn’t be more than 16.
“I wrote kid’s books for a living,” he said looking up at the moon. “Some of my stuff was read in schools, once.”
She had turned on her back too and was following his gaze. “What’s your name?” Their voices seemed to be bouncing off the moon at each other.
He told her his name.
“Really?” She sat upright. The tenseness was replaced by curiosity. “I read your books in grade six. I thought you had died after The Prisoner on Hemlock Hill.”
“Betcha, your parents read them in grade six too. They don’t read them in grade six anymore. They read smart phones now, and that Twitter stuff.”
“Is that why you stopped writing?”
“When you lose your audience, you lose purpose. Then the ailments take over.”
“I wish I could write.”
“Why don’t you? You have a story. Otherwise you wouldn’t be here tonight. You can’t leave the stage until the story is told.”
She lay back on the track and they remained silent staring up at the moon. Her hurried breathing slowed. Then she sighed. “My story was told on You Tube.”
“Someone else’s warped version of it. They call that bullshit Reality TV. I am more interested in the author’s authentic voice.”
“Like, who will believe me?”
“When you write it with conviction, they will believe you, even if you have to convert it into a fairy tale. You know that Prisoner on Hemlock Hill? That was me in boarding school, when the bigger boys and the Fathers pursued me for sex. I turned the trauma into a children’s story by taking the grimy stuff out and substituting gremlins and dragons for the real bastards. Now those little pricks in grade 6 might read it only if I put the reality back.”
A train whistle blew in the distance.
“That’d be my train,” he said. “My track is vibrating.”
“Omigod! So’s mine.” She was up and tugging on his coat.
“What are you doing?”
“Getting you out of here.”
“So I can write another book?”
“So you can write mine.”
“Leave me be. I’m done with writing. I’ve written all the stories I need to write. Get out of here and write your own.”
Her grip was strong and he felt his foot come loose from between the ties. He felt needed as she dragged him across the track. He hadn’t felt this way since his books had started to fade from the limelight. He yielded to her pulling. She stumbled in the dark and they both tumbled to the ground again — this time across the other track.
“Fuck!” she screamed. “It’s coming down this one.” Ahead a light glowed and the whistle went off, louder this time. The track rattled.
He grabbed her foot and tried to push her out of the path of the oncoming train. But she held onto him so tight that they both rolled over the steel and down the slope towards the beach. The train whistle and the roar was deafening. They had lost their grip on each other but he felt her presence somewhere off to his right. He tried to crawl back up but was out of breath and slumped to the ground, a few feet away from the track. He thought he heard someone yell from the passing cab. “Hey, watch it, you drunken bastard!”
She had crawled up to him and he instinctively reached and drew her into his embrace as the train cleared overhead, receding into the night. She was sobbing again, in relief this time, and she held onto him.
“Hush, my dear. We missed our train.”
“I chickened out.”
“Life won over.”
“For you too?”
It was nice holding on to her like this, under the moonlight. He couldn’t remember the last time he had been this close to another human. Only in his books had he been engaged in other people’s lives.
“Maybe, I could help you write your story,” he said.
“Then we will not have to catch another train until we finish. Anyway, I think that engine driver will have phoned the police by now, and they’ll be out here soon, before the next train comes. Like how they pick up druggies and drunks.”
“I could get you home before that,” she said, helping him rise to his feet.
“That would be nice,” he said, dusting the sand off his clothes. “I am done with excitement tonight.”
She helped him limp home under the moonlight, and gave him a hug opposite his apartment building.
“You’ll come tomorrow?” he asked. “We can start Chapter 1. And we have to hurry.” He tapped his leg. “This poison spreads pretty fast.”
There was a lot of sad stuff to get through, but she felt she could tell it to him for they had been to a very bad place and back, a place that her mom would never accompany her to. And she would stay with him as he slid into that other abyss that had opened up inside his leg.
“And you won’t go back to those tracks until you finish?” he asked.
“I won’t leave the stage until the story is told,” she promised.