illustrations by sidney teles
The roaring in my ears got louder and louder until it was all I could hear. It was a strangely low, screaming sound when you listened closely, as few but I did. The roar was louder than the rushing water swirling around our ankles, louder than the sound of cars clanking and wheezing down the street, louder than our voices, should any of us decide to speak up. There was nothing but the whistling and rumbling of the train raking on the tracks just above us, magnified to infinity in the hollowed out cave of a tunnel we were standing in.
In truth, we were just wading in a dirty stream that happened to pass under a bridge for freight trains. But listening to the all-encompassing noise of power over our heads and clattering around the tunnel, feeling the wet, rough stone against my back, and sharing an excited glance with Blue, we were somewhere else. This was the New World, a brand new continent that we were discovering for the first time. It was an escape from the imperialist regime of suburbia. Full of savage monsters passing overhead and unexplored territories of woods next to the tracks. We were explorers in a dark and uncharted territory.
The last set of wheels clattered past our heads, and the feeling of mysticism blew away with it. I wished, as I wished every summer night, when the train left, that I could have stood on top of the tracks rather than cowering beneath them. I know it would have been seen as a cry for help, as a suicide attempt, but then I just wanted to grab hold of one of the jagged pieces of metal sticking out from the train and fly off with it, let it carry me somewhere, anywhere else. Let the train take me somewhere that mattered.
The roar of the tracks died down to a stutter of shaking metal, and Blue turned to me with a wide, sloppy looking grin. Everything about him was sort of sloppy. Blue looked like a toy that was half-built and then left for his lines to be smoothed another day, but most of the kids in our neighborhood looked like that. Everyone looked like a broken toy, a doll that got played with a little too rough. Blue was thirteen that day, not a full year older than me, and all his plastic had melted and all of his strings were too loose and thin. His hair hadn’t been cut in a year and it hung down past his shoulders, longer than mine and nearly as long as his sister’s. He rode on the handlebars of my bike because he had given his old one to Kitten, and had saved up all of his spare money to buy a camera.
That camera was what made Blue special, what made him different, and I knew it. All of us knew it. He was driven, he was brilliant, and behind the lens of the Walmart equivalent of state of the art, he could make you see whatever story he wanted you to see. All he had to do was make it out of out stupid town without getting trapped, without getting some girl pregnant or falling in love or any number of awful reasons to stay here.
“You get it?” I asked.
“Got it,” Blue’s grin widened, and he shook the camera in his hand just slightly. “You won’t be able to hear it, not really, but I think you’ll be able to feel it. And then, ya know, with the right music-”
“Yeah,” I said, almost as eager as he was. “It’ll- what’d you call it?”
“Capture the essence of the feeling of wanderlust. Kick-butt way to start the story, yeah?”
“Y’all can swear,” Kitten, six years old and pouting, interjected. “I’ve heard ‘ass’ before.”
“Don’t go saying that in front of Mom!” Blue demanded. With the camera diligently fixed to his right hand, he swung her up and around him with his left, making her giggle again as her heels dug into the stream, casting arcs of silver-brown mist around where she spun.
It was our New World, our final frontier, the last great territory to be discovered. Sure, our trailer homes were not five minutes away and there was a broken pink tricycle buried in the mud on the bank, but Blue saw it as something more. I wanted to come out to listen to the trains because I wanted to be reminded that some people went other places, that there was really a world out there. Blue wanted to come with me because he thought he could capture that, preserve the lust for adventure that our little cave evoked in the blue light of a television. I believed that he could, even if I didn’t know why he would want to.
I felt a tug on my sleeve, and looked down at Kitten, still grinning wide like her brother did.
“What is it, kid?” I asked, not unkindly. She looked shy, pausing to glance down at her murky reflection in the water and push her stringy blonde hair back behind her ears.
“Did I get you wet?” she asked. She sounded apologetic, and I realized that I must have looked upset.
“Naw, kid, I was already wet,” I laughed. “The only thing that’d get you in trouble is getting water on Blue’s camera.” She started to roll her eyes halfway through the sentence. Kitten was a good kid, even if she wasn’t driven the way Blue was. She knew the drill when it came to water and electronics, especially Blue’s. He wouldn’t get mad at her, we all knew, but he would be devastated, and with the strangely loving relationship she and her brother had, that was much worse.
Reassured that I wasn’t mad at her, she grabbed my hand and started swinging. She stopped when she saw the charm bracelet I was wearing, staring at it with shiny, eager eyes.
“What, you want it?” I asked. She started to say no, but I had already knelt down, water squelching up to my thighs, and I unclasped the bracelet and placed it carefully on her wrist. Much too big, she had to splay her fingers so it didn’t fall off, but she looked like I had given her something priceless. In truth, it was junk jewelry. Fitting for junk people like us in our junk town, but to her, it was just shiny. Or maybe it was just mine, and she liked me so much.
“Sun’s settin’,” Blue said needlessly. He was still smiling, but smiling was his default facial expression. It got him in a lot of trouble with teachers, because smiling to them meant he was up to something, though he rarely was.
“Don’ wanna go home yet!” Kitten complained.
“Tough luck, munchkin,” Blue said. “We keep you out here in the water after dark and you’re liable to catch cold and drown!”
“Cold won’t matter if I’m drowning,” Kitten said.
“But your mom might not let you play with us tomorrow if we get you home late,” I said. Kitten’s eyebrows knit together as she contemplated the logic behind the statement, finally nodding slowly.
“Fine!” she said, her lower lip still jutting out in a pout. Blue laughed at her, then grabbed her one armed by her waist and carried her out of the water. She shrieked with laughter mingled with protests of “Lemme down, Blue! Blue I can walk! Lemme down NOW!” but he just grinned wider, paying her no mind.
“Is it safe to take the tracks back?” he asked me, and I nodded. Nothing came by these tracks between sunset and midnight, as far as I could tell, and even if it did, there was woods all around us. We would have more than enough time to jump out of the way of a train if anything did come. Blue knew that, but he didn’t believe in taking chances when it came to his baby sister.
“We can stay out later?” Kitten asked, finally wriggling out of Blue’s grasp and bouncing to her feet like she was made of rubber.
“No, we’re still going home, but we’ll cut through the tracks,” Blue said. “How’s that?”
Kitten answered with a delighted noise, and she led the way up hill to the tracks, slipping on ratty grass and weeds as she climbed ahead of us.
The sky got dark faster when we walked down the tracks instead of the main road that night. The trees quickly blocked out the last bloody sunbeams of the day, making the dusk eerily pale. The railroad tracks were, technically speaking, faster. They went through the woods, cutting a direct route to our backyards, but the darkness made Blue edgy, so I was grateful for Kitten humming indistinctly in front of us to fight off the pervasive silence.
“You know what this is like?” Blue asked, and I turned my head towards him with hope swelling in my heart. Blue did not disappoint.
“It’s just like that scene in To Kill a Mockingbird, you know? The bit where the kids are trying to get back from the school play? The forest is so dark and shadowy and it’s even scarier when the music stops? I always thought that was great. Most horror movies ain’t scary when you turn the sound off, but that scared you with no noise.”
Blue not only made movies, he knew movies. He’d seen every movie the county library had available for checkout, and had watched everything his family could get from satellite. The way he loved movies was why I loved him so much. He had a powerful vision for the world, and saw everything through his camera lens. He spoke life from a script. Life was his movie, and I was content to be an actor in it. But all obsessions had a dark side, and his love of movies made him too damn hopeful for kids like us. He did optimism like people did heroin, shooting up on hope and getting high on dreams. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that real life had no happy endings, maybe because I wanted so badly to believe in his.
Kitten walked on the dark metal rail of the tracks like a balance beam, with her arms stuck out on either side of her and her tongue poking out of her mouth in concentration. It was slowing us down, but Blue didn’t say anything, and neither did I. Every time she let out an excited little gasp, Blue’s face glowed with the most adoring smile. We we walked on the other side of the tracks, because Kitten didn’t want us to try and catch her if she fell.
“Since we’re walking straight, I could film this as a mise en scène,” he said. I waited a minute, drawing it out, but I finally asked.
“What’s a mise en scène?” I asked, and he grinned eagerly.
“It’s a certain way to film where the camera stays in one place for the whole scene, never moving around. It’s usually symmetrical on either side of the camera, so the whole thing is in perfectly balance. Like now, with the track and the woods on either side? It gives the scene a kind of creepy stillness, even though we’re moving. So I’d set the camera way up there and just film us walking closer, see?”
“Yeah, I do. Kinda dramatic, huh?”
“That’s the goal.”
“What’s so special about it?”
“Just that the camera never moves. Usually the camera moves, although you don’t notice it if it’s filmed right. It’s like the lack of music. It’s uncanny ‘cause it’s not what you’re used to.”
We were close to home when we heard the soft rumbling behind us. Tiny pebbles on the wooden beams between the rails began to jump, and Kitten fell off the rail, tumbling to the side of the tracks. The headlights were far off, so I thought Blue overreacted slightly. He took off at a sprint, scooping Kitten off the ground and dragging her all the way into the line of trees so far that the wind from the train wouldn’t even whip her hair when it came by. By the time I caught up to them, the train still far from us, though shrieking already, Kitten kept wailing “I dropped it, I dropped it!”
“I’m sorry,” I said to Blue, standing between the two of them and the tracks. Kitten was struggling in his grasp, but I was overcome with guilt seeing the worry on his face. “I really thought there weren’t any more tonight. This one must be unscheduled, or maybe it’s a weekly thing.”
“No harm done,” Blue said, offering me one weak smile. He must have been distracted too. He put Kitten down, and to our mutual horror, she raced back towards the train tracks.
Blue screamed her name, a horrible scream that ripped over the sound of the metal on metal squealing in front of us. Kitten was still stumbling forward when I saw the stupid glitter of silver on the tracks, a charm bracelet that was almost invisible until it lit up like a beacon in the glow of the oncoming headlights.
I ran out from behind the trees too, and while the roaring-whistling-screaming was louder than ever, I dove for the back of her shirt, still pitching myself forward as I tried to pull her back. The headlights were blinding for a moment, a sudden brightness in the dusty, humid darkness. I had a handful of old cotton, and I was pulling, dragging, screaming There was a rip-slam of something against my arm and then I was stumbling backwards and away from the train, my feet unwilling or unable to hold me up even to run away.
The first pain I felt that I was aware of was the slam of my back and then my head against the earth, heavy and shocking as it pushed any remaining air in my lungs out of them. The train was still rushing by, but it didn’t sound all that loud anymore, I noticed dully. And then my arm.
Oh, God, my arm hurt. Hurt does not even seem like the right word, but I was beyond words then. I had broken that same arm before, but this didn’t feel like broken. It felt mangled, like a rottweiler had used it for a chew toy. I would like to say that I noticed Kitten, but at first all I could think of, all I could feel was pain, hot wet all consuming pain that swarmed up my arm and throbbed in my shoulder, my chest. It took all of my focus to think about something else, to try and stop thinking about whatever was still barely connected to my torso, and to look at Kitten, her screams bleeding into whimpers next to me in the grass.
I looked past my own arm (it didn’t even look like an arm, only recognizable by the puddle of black blood surrounding it) to see her. Her pretty blonde hair was streaked with blood, turning her brunette in the darkness. I couldn’t make the picture make sense, too lost in my own haze of pain and confusion. She was mangled. Her limbs stuck out in the wrong directions, and her chest, her chest, it looked like a surrealist painting, it had gone concave, her face could have been ground beef. She didn’t look human. Her tiny hand, though, that was still pale and perfect in the darkness, and she was clutching something in it that glittered.
Blue was wailing, I realized, louder than the train yet again. I wanted to comfort him, but I was certain I was dying too. Besides, I had tried to help, and I hadn’t done any damn good.
“Stay here, Jesus, fuck, stay here! Watch her, please, stay with Kitten and watch her! Oh God, oh damn, oh fuck, I’ll be back, I have to get help! Don’t let her die!”
His voice cracked, and then he was gone, leaving me alone with the gurgling, whimpering. I wanted to sit up, but knew that I couldn’t. I wanted to roll onto my side, to see if I could recognize the little girl in the pile of broken flesh next to me, but she was on my bad side. I tried to imagine a whole body like my arm, and felt a pain unrelated to my injury course through my chest.
“It’s gonna be okay, baby,” I whispered. I could whisper without screaming, so I took shallow breaths and filled the awful silence. The whimpers seemed to slow when I was talking, so I kept going. “Sh, sh, it’ll be alright, sweetie. We’re gonna get you patched up. Blue’s coming back. You’re gonna be okay. Be brave for me, Kitten, be brave.”
I kept up a litany of pleading until the pain in my arm began to subside, like it was draining out of me. We were far enough out of the city proper that I could see a smattering of stars in the sky, and when my voice faded off, I kept staring up at them.
I did not remember closing my eyes, but I remembered opening them, no longer looking at stars but instead at a team of paramedics with intensely concentrated faces. There were sirens blaring, painful to hear, and I felt something tighten around the top of my arm, like an incredibly painful blood pressure cuff. Somewhere along the line I must have made the connection that I was in an ambulance.
“Where’m I goin’?” I slurred out, embarrassed that I couldn’t speak properly.
“Crown Memorial,” an EMT said. She leaned closer over me, and I wondered how she could move around without falling in a moving vehicle. “Can you tell us your name?”
“Don’t take me there,” I pleaded. “My parents… my parents can’t afford that…” I looked from side to side, looking away from the bloody arm quick, so much more graphic in the fluorescent lights. “Where’s Kitten?”
“The other girl was airlifted,” the kind EMT said, and I groaned. I closed my eyes, hoping fervently I wouldn’t need to open them again for a long time.
The antiseptic hospital air made my eyes open again in curiosity, if nothing else. I kept asking for Blue and Kitten, but separated from the EMT who had actually been helpful, no one was answering me. I finally gave up my name, knowing that I was going to be in for it when my parents were called, but was tired of fighting.
A doctor shoved my arm under an x-ray, twisting it from side to side to get pictures. The x-rays hurt worse than getting hit by a train, but screaming that didn’t make them stop, only prompted the x-ray technician to say “Sorry, kid,” and reposition me again. I was shocked when I was told that the arm itself was only broken in three places, and that most of my problem was hypovolemic shock. I was wheeled into a quiet room where two beds had been set up, helped into one of them, and told by a nurse that they wanted to keep me overnight for observation and possibly a blood transfusion. H paused before he left, and looked like he didn’t want to ask the question before he spoke it aloud.
“Did you want to share a room with the little girl?” he asked. “She was asking for you, and her mother thought it might calm her down.”
“Kitten?” I asked. He nodded solemnly.
“I believe that’s what I heard her brother call her, yes. Emily Carter?”
“Kitten,” I repeated, nodding back. He breezed out of the room and came back in, wheeling a bed in front of him.
Kitten looked worse than I remembered. Her hair, still matted with blood in places, looked thinner, dotted with bald patches that revealed little lacerations. Her eyelids were closed as if in sleep, but her mouth was mashed together in a thin line of pain. Her whole tiny body had been straightened out beneath the hospital sheets, and though I could see less bandages on her than on me, she already looked nearly dead.
“Her legs were crushed,” the nurse whispered. I looked, and saw that the blanket looked almost like it tapered off at her waist. My stomach churned. “She’s not going to walk again, even if she doesn’t die during the night from the shock or other complications. Broken ribs too, but those are harder to take care of. Be there for her?”
“Of course,” I said, my mouth dry. The nurse smiled gratefully at me.
“She needs all the friends she can get,” he said. He walked out of the room as Blue and his parents came in. Blue’s face was white and hard, pain etched into every line of it. He looked like he was going to join his parents at Kitten’s bedside, then he knelt next to me.
“How are you?” he asked. His voice was hollow.
“Don’t worry about me,” I said. “I’ll be… I’ll be okay.”
Blue nodded once, smoothed my hair back, and moved over to Kitten. I felt a pulse of loneliness, a fleeting moment of jealousy, then closed my eyes, feeling the hum of painkillers numbing my useless arm.
I woke up in the dark, my arm throbbing in pain. I was about to press for a nurse, to ask for more medication that would knock me out, when I heard a ragged breath from my left side. I rolled over to look at Kitten. Sleeping, but her face still looked like it was screwed up in pain. As it probably always would be.
I lay like that for a long time, looking at the little girl and thinking. Never walk again. She’d never walk again. Her family would have so many medical bills that they wouldn’t be able to eat. Blue’s tiny college fund would disappear in a blink, and he’d have to drop out as soon as it was legal for him to work full time. One train that he hadn’t been near, and it was all over for him. Blue standing in a tux, holding an Oscar, all the teachers that put him in detention for smiling trying to brag that they’d had him in class once, none of that would happen. He’d be stuck here forever, in a dead end job just trying to keep his favorite person alive. He was going to be stuck here like his parents and my parents and me. No, that could not happen. The big beautiful movie of his life couldn’t be reduced to one scene, one unmoving camera with no soundtrack and all of us just dying in front of it.
It was hard to stand up while I was still sluggish from painkillers and blood loss, especially only being able to help myself with one arm, but I did it. I forced myself onto unsteady feet and tried to balance my labored breathing so as not to wake the little girl. I shuffled slowly over to Kitten to get a better look at her. Her breathing was unsteady too, like the paper-thin sheets were crushing her chest. Her knuckles were white against the shits, like they’d been white wrapped around my old bracelet. She was in pain, so much pain. Really, this was in her best interests too. Seeing how much she hurt was all my mind needed to catch up with my body, me already clutching a pillow in my left hand. Unable to look at her for a second longer, I pressed the starch white pillow down on her tiny face.
My left arm was stronger than I’d thought. Complications were expected, that’s what the nurse had said. If she doesn’t die during the night. Her ribs were caving in, broken and battered. Of course she would have trouble breathing. I shifted all of my weight to my left arm and held the pillow down, my heart hammering out of my chest as I prayed I wouldn’t get caught. Prayed that Kitten would forgive me. It was better than the life she would be living, I hoped, I had to believe. I trembled with the effort of smothering her, but I did not let up.
I do not know how many minutes passed. I stood there as long as I could stand it, and when my tears were shaking my chest too hard to stand still, I pulled the pillow away and carried it back to my bed. I did not hear a ragged, relieved breath. I did not hear tears. I heard only the sound of my own heartbeat. I didn’t call for more medicine, but instead wallowed in it. Forgive me.
No one noticed until morning. The nurse gasped in horror while I pretended to sleep, and she was moved to a different room. To the morgue. Blue didn’t visit me.
The funeral was small. The headstone was small. The coffin was small, so as to better suit the small body. Blue didn’t seem to see me anymore, but he didn’t really seem to see anyone anymore. I thought, for a few horrible months, that I had ruined everything.
But Blue rose from the ashes. He threw himself, body and soul, into his work. He filmed short pieces and documentaries, his backpack overflowed with dozens of drafts of screenplays. He sold Kitten’s old bike and bought his own so he could ride to the next town over and watch every movie he could get his hands on.
Decades have passed since that night. Blue and I don’t talk anymore. I never left town, nor did I ever expect to. I never had any hope of it. Blue doesn’t even go by that name anymore, he goes by a name the whole world knows. He makes movies now, real ones. He works with all the big names in Hollywood, and has all the women and money and acclaim he ever dreamt of. More than. He just wanted to live off of movies, and this was beyond the wildest dreams of the boy I knew.
I still watch every award show that’s broadcast in our small town. I watch as he scoops up silver and gold trophies by the armful. And every night that I watch, I look at him in the hopes that he’ll finally smile again. And he never does.
Elizabeth Sparrow is an undergraduate student at Indiana University. She is a lover of chocolate, women, and all things preternatural, phantasmagorical, maximalistic, and sacrilegious. You can find her drinking tea and raving about vampires in the back of your local library. She has no previous publications.