The Wrong Side of the Tracks

Chapter 1

Stephen climbed up onto the railroad line and looked down at the bend.   The seven o’clock freight train wasn’t in sight.  The tracks were desolate, the trees lining both sides still visible in the dusk light.  

Stephen was glad.  He had been trying to wrench himself away from Ben and Tommy for the past half hour—he didn’t want them to witness what he was about to do.

He knelt down beside one rail and, using a roll of masking tape, attached three new, shiny pennies to the track.   Pennies smashed by the train made nice necklaces.   At least Stephen thought so.  Hopefully one of the pennies would be flattened smoothly enough to make a good one for Kristine Elliot. 

“Hey, Stephen,” a voice called.

Stephen quickly stood up.

It was Ben.  And behind Ben, Ben's little brother, Tommy. 

The two sauntered up to Stephen, looking down at the pennies taped to the rail.

Ben touched one with the toe of his bare foot.  “What are you doing that for?”  Ben thought smashing pennies on the train tracks was kid stuff.

 “Makin’ a necklace,” Stephen said defensively. 

“Necklaces are for pussies.”

“It’s not for me.”

“Who’s it for, then?”

“Kristine Elliot.”

Ben stared at Stephen.  “You’re makin’ a necklace for Kristine Elliot?”

“Stephen has a giiiiirl-friend,” Tommy sang.  “Stephen has a giiiil-friend!”

“Shut up,” Ben said, lightly swatting Tommy on the head.  He was only ten.

“Tomorrow is Kristine’s birthday,” Stephen said.  “I just thought I’d give her a birthday present, that’s all.  It’s no big deal.”

Ben lit up a cigarette and blew out the smoke, studying Stephen’s face.  He seemed to see Stephen in a new light.  They had often talked about girls, but as Stephen was only 14 and Ben 17, for Stephen it was only in theory.  Now Ben saw that he was actually interested in a real, live female.

"Ray Hatcher won't like it.  You know Kristine is his girlfriend, don’t you?”

Ray Hatcher was in the 11th grade.  A big oaf who could crush Stephen like a bug.   “Of course I know that.  But he doesn’t own her.  Anyway, Kristine and I just friends.”

“I get the feeling you and Kristine are more than friends.”

Stephen felt himself blushing.  “I don’t know….maybe.”

“You better watch your ass, Stephen.”

Stephen didn’t say anything.  Ben watched him another moment, finishing his cigarette.  He threw the butt down on the railroad ties and ground it out with the heel of his bare foot. 

“Awesome,” Tommy said.

This always impressed Tommy.  In warm weather, Ben never wore shoes except when he had to, like to go to school.  He loved the outdoors.  He had calluses on the bottoms of his feet that were so thick they were almost like sandals, so he said.

“Well,” Ben said, “if you’re going to make a necklace, at least do it right.”  He stepped over to the rail peered down at the pennies in the semi-dark.  “You put on too much tape on that one...” 

Ben made some adjustments, pulling up some of the tape.  If you put on too much, the penny would get run over too many times and be pulverized into a thin slice of copper foil, no good for anything.

Tommy screamed so loudly and unexpectedly that Stephen started.  Train!  It’s coming, it’s coming!”

Stephen and Ben turned and looked down the tracks.  It was only an automobile had that stopped on the Tomlinson Pike crossing.  It continued on its way.

“That’s not the train, you little fart.” Ben pushed his little brother over with a shove of his foot.  Tommy fell on his side.  He lay there for a few seconds, until he realized the iron rail was bisecting his midsection, then leaped up and scrambled into the ditch that ran alongside the tracks. 

 “What a pussy,” Ben said, laughing.  Tommy was deathly afraid of the train.  He had to work up his nerve to put his head down against the tracks to listen for it, even when the train was nowhere in sight.

“I’m not a pussy,” Tommy said, though Stephen doubted that the boy even knew what the word meant.  Thrusting out his lower lip in defiance, Tommy climbed back up onto the tracks and stood next to Stephen and Ben.

“Go home,” Ben ordered.

Tommy shook his head in defiance.

“Go home.  This is no place for little kids.”

“I’m not a little kid.  Anyway, you’re s’posed to be watching me.”

Ben gave Stephen a frustrated look.  Ben’s mother and father both worked, and he was supposed to look after Tommy until one of them came home, which could be at any hour.  Ben’s father was a construction worker and usually came home drunk, if at all.  His mother supposedly had a job “at a store,” but Stephen half-wondered if she was a prostitute.  She sometimes came home and cooked supper, then was off again if her husband wasn’t home, wearing gaudy makeup and tight-fitting clothes.

 “If you’re not a kid,” Ben said to Tommy, “then you don’t need nobody to look after you.  So just go home.”

“No.”  He stuck out his chest.  “I’m staying here with you guys.”

Ben took a menacing step towards Tommy, and the boy backed away.  “Mama said you better not hit me again!”

Ben gritted his teeth, but then seemed to regain control of himself.  He lowered his voice to almost a whisper. “You want to end up like Eddie Bumpus, Tommy?”

Tommy’s skin turned so pale his freckles seemed to be penciled onto his face.  Eddie Bumpus was an eight year old boy who had been run over by the train.  The grisly event had happened about five years ago, long before Stephen had moved into the neighborhood, but he had heard the story so many times he felt like he had been there himself.  Eddie Bumpus had been trying to find Sparky, his cocker spaniel.  Instead, Eddie had gotten run over himself.  All the local kids had rushed to the scene, and most of them had shared what they had witnessed with Stephen in graphic detail.  One particularly troubling image was that Eddie’s legs had been sliced so cleanly in two that, from the side, they looked like “one of those diagrams in a medical book, where you can see layers of bone, muscle, skin...”  This particular description, in fact, had come from Ben.

“You’re just trying to scare me,” Tommy said.

“Just go home!” Ben shouted, unable to fight his anger any longer.

Tommy stuck out his lower lip again.  “Why don’t you try and make me?”

Ben’s right hand shot out and slapped Tommy hard this time.  The blow was so crisp and unexpected it nearly knocked the boy down.  When Tommy regained his balance, he held his hand to his cheek, a look of utter surprise on his reddening face.  He started to take a kick at Ben, but then seemed to think the better of it and instead kicked the gravel between the railroad ties.  Rocks flew.  A few pebbles struck Ben in the chest.  Stephen ducked as a rather large stone whizzed past his head. 

Before Ben could grab him, Tommy leaped into the ditch and started running towards through the bushes towards home.  Ben tore out in pursuit, cursing under his breath.  Ben never wore shoes or a shirt if the weather was warm, as it had been all week, even though it was the middle of November.  His lean, tanned, muscular form raced through the brush, the thorns ripping at his faded jeans.   He reminded Stephen of a wild American Indian, like in the old westerns on TV.

Stephen looked back down the tracks and noticed that another car had stopped at the crossing.  He thought it might be the same car as before, headed the other way on the street.  Whoever it was had stopped right on the tracks.  Stephen thought he saw a flashlight beam pointed in their direction, but he wasn’t sure. 

“Ben!” Stephen yelled.  “Come here, quick!”

Ben climbed back up on the tracks, breathing hard.  Tommy was behind him, covered with dirt. 

“What?”  Ben said.


Ben turned his head just in time to see the car move on. 

“I thought I saw a flashlight or something,” Stephen said.

“Ah, that don’t mean nothin’,” Ben said.  “Lots of people stop and look down the tracks.”  But Ben looked uneasy.  Stephen had never seen the infamous “train detective” who kept an eye on the tracks, but Ben had.  In fact, Ben had been caught by him.  It happened two years ago, when Ben was 15.  The detective had written his name down in a big black book and told him that if he was ever caught on the tracks again, he would have to go to juvenile court.

“Hey, look,” Ben said, pointing in the direction of the bend again.

Stephen’s heartbeat quickened.  “What?”

 Train!  Tommy screamed.  “It’s really comin’, it’s really comin’!”

Now Stephen could clearly see the locomotive’s rotating beacon, far beyond the Tomlinson Pike intersection, sweeping out circles through the treetops.

Tommy immediately jumped down into the ditch and started running towards home.  When the engines passed, he never came any closer than the edge of the woods that separated their neighborhood from the tracks. 

Stephen climbed down into the ditch and squatted in the bushes, a position from which he hoped he could watch the wheels crush his pennies.   Stephen was a little bit afraid of the train, too, but only if he was close to the tracks, as he planned to be today.  But after what Ben had said about Kristine Elliot and Ray Hatcher, he felt little concern about the train.  The only sensation he felt was that queasiness in his stomach.

He knew very well that Kristine was Hatcher’s girlfriend, but he had somehow managed to ignore this fact, or at least push it to the back of his mind, as he had gotten to know her.  Now, Stephen was angry at himself for thinking that he might have a chance with Kristine Elliot.  She was probably the prettiest girl in the entire ninth grade class, and Ray Hatcher was two years older than Stephen, in the eleventh grade.  To make matters worse, Hatcher was a jock.  He was on the football team and seemed to be the center of attention everywhere he went.  Stephen loathed school sports, and Ben did, too.  The one time they had gone to a football game, they had spent the entire time hiding under the bleachers and annoying girls by grabbing their ankles and pinching their behinds.

At their school, team sports seemed only for the rich kids, probably because the rich kids were the only ones who had parents that would fork over the money to buy equipment.  It wasn't like the school gave you the stuff.  And rides to practice and all that.   Ray Hatcher even had his own car, a brand new Porsche, that his parents had bought him.  Stephen couldn’t imagine having a car.  Ben only dreamed of it, someday, after he would graduate and get some kind of job.   

Stephen was so lost in his school thoughts that he was barely aware of the approaching train. He was sure that to Kristine, he was nothing but a boy who hung around the railroad tracks with a bunch of scummy kids.   Why in the world would a girl like her be interested in him? 

He looked at the rail, at his taped-down pennies, now thinking that Ben was probably right—giving Kristine a necklace might not be such a good idea.  Ray Hatcher was a big, mean son-of-a-bitch.  He would probably kick Stephen’s little 9th grade butt if he knew she had ever spoken to Stephen, let alone that Stephen was giving her presents.

“Benny, hurry, the train’s coming!” Tommy shouted, pulling Stephen out of his thoughts.  Stephen was surprised to see that Ben was casually walking down the tracks, as if the train was nowhere in sight.

“Benny!  The train’s coming!” Tommy yelled again, his voice increasing in pitch.

“Here Sparky, here Sparky,” Ben called, looking to his left, then to the right.  “Come on, boy.  Where are you?”

Stephen laughed out loud, but it was cut off by Tommy’s yelling.  “The train’s really coming, Benny!  Watch out!  Benny, watch out!”

Ben seemed oblivious to his brother’s screams and continued to walk down the tracks, looking this way and that, his back to the approaching train.  “Heeeeere Sparky, heeeere Sparky...come on, boy.  Where are you, you little mutt?”

“Benny!” Tommy shouted, his voice even higher and panicky.  “Benny, please, get away, the train’s coming!”  He was standing at the sagging fence at the edge of the woods, one hand clutching the rusty wire, the other curled into a tight, nervous fist which bobbed up and down as he yelled.

The train was close enough now that Stephen could hear its thundering double engines.  But Ben continued wandering down the tracks, to the left and right, occasionally standing up on one rail with one foot, calling for Sparky.

The act was so convincing that Stephen himself started to feel anxious.  Stephen took two steps up the embankment, so that his waist was at track-level.  “You better be careful!” he called out to Ben, but the rumble of the engines had become so forceful that he voice was lost in it.  The train was less than a quarter mile away, and closing fast.

There were three long blasts from the train’s air horn. Stephen jumped back down into the ditch.  The engineer had spotted Ben, and possibly Stephen as well.  But Ben didn’t seem to notice or care. 

Now, Tommy had started wailing.  “Please don’t die, Benny!  Please don’t die!”

Ben finally stopped walking at a point where he was directly adjacent to Tommy, and only a few feet from Stephen.   He looked to the left of the tracks, then to the right, shaking his head.  “That damn Sparky!  Where is he?”  Ben had to shout above the rumbling of the approaching engines to make sure Tommy could hear him. 

Stephen thought the game was over, and that Ben would jump down into the bushes.  But to Stephen’s astonishment, Ben sat down smack in the middle of the tracks. 

“Well, I guess I’ll just have me a little nap until Sparky comes back,” Ben said.  He lay down on his back, his head towards the oncoming train, his arms and legs spread out so that his fingers and toes touched the insides of the rails.

“Benny!” Tommy screamed.  The terrified boy took a step towards the tracks, then looked at the massive engines and stepped back to the fence again, clinging to it.  “Get up, Benny, get up!”

Ben just smiled, staring up at the sky, spread-eagled between the rails.  This was a trick that Stephen had seen before, but he thought Ben was crazy for doing it.  Ben claimed he could tell exactly how far away the train was by the vibration in the rails, and that if he wanted, he could sit on the rails blindfolded and know exactly when to jump out of the way.

The train’s horn blasted three more times. Stephen could clearly see the engineer’s head protruding from the window of the first engine.  He felt a flicker of hope that the engineer might put on the brakes, but then remembered that it takes at least a mile to bring a freight train to a stop.  This was what Ben had told him, and Ben seemed to know everything there was to know about trains.  And now, this particular train was less than 100 yards a way.

“Benny, please don’t die, Benny,” Tommy was still screaming. “Please don’t die!”

Ben laughed out loud, but continued to stare up at the sky.  

The train bore down on them.  70 yards, 60 yards, 50 yards...

Stephen felt his body growing tense.  “Ben, you better get up now!” he called, though the rumbling of the engines was so intense that he knew Ben couldn’t hear him.  Then a strange buzzing sound caught Stephen’s attention.  It made the hair on the back of his neck stand on end and seemed to come from everywhere.  Stephen quickly pinpointed the source.  One of his pennies, the first one with the tape only on the back, was vibrating crazily against the iron rail.  

Everything was out control.

The horn blasted again.  Now, the train was so close it would reach Ben in a matter of seconds.

Ben seemed frozen, still staring up at the heavens.   Stephen felt an impulse to run up onto the tracks and try to pull Ben down into the ditch, but then changed his mind when he looked up at the monstrous engine.  Ben was too far away—the train would reach him long before Stephen could.

In that moment, Stephen was certain that Ben was going to die. 

(end of sample)

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