RIDING THE UNION PACIFIC - KIP HANSON
“C’mon, Johnny, run. Get up here, douchebag.”
Johnny sprinted after the westbound Union Pacific, stumbling over the small rocks and blackened scree bordering the tracks. The engine was a distant rumble ahead, rising in pitch, and Johnny knew he would soon be left behind; worse, he would be prone to terrific ridicule from his twin brother later that night. He tripped and nearly fell, but with a final gasping effort reached out to catch his brother’s hand. Charlie swung him up to the rail, clapping him on the back once his grip was secure. Together, they climbed to the top of the car.
Despite the heat of the Arizona sun overhead, the air blowing past was chill, and the boys sprawled out upon the roof of the container, glad for its metallic warmth and enjoying the delicious feel of the air streaming over their bodies. On the horizon, a monstrous serpent crept across the desert landscape - Interstate 10, stretching from Jacksonville, Florida to nearby LA. And there in the middle loomed the tunnel, a black, yawning hole bored through and under the long spine of desert rock on which the freeway ran.
As they neared the tunnel’s maw, the boys sat up in anticipation of its dreadful thrill - the mysterious graffitied walls running past, the dark and sooty concrete of the ceiling flying scant inches above their heads. If they were lucky, the eastbound train would come while they were still inside, making the cars rock and the tunnel black; the whistle would blow and the air compress around them until breath and sight and hearing was lost. It was terrifying and marvelous, and was what the boys yearned for above all else on this sunny December day.
On the bridge overhead, a highway patrol car sat on the shoulder of the Interstate. A man in uniform stood at the rail, waving at the boys, and they could just make out the sound of his voice yelling down at them. “Hellooo, below there! You boys, what the hell are you think…” and then he was past, drowned out by the sudden strident blare of the train’s whistle. Charlie grinned at his brother as they were swept into the tunnel, ducking their heads a split second before the transom whipped past.
The engine passed through the tunnel and out into the desert. As the locomotive approached the junction ahead, they heard the deep rumble of the engine idling down as the train slowed to pass through town. Charlie swung over the edge. Hanging from the rail, he ran alongside the steel wheels, matching the speed of the train exactly before leaping to the dusty shoulder below. He landed perfectly, then turned to jeer at his brother as he landed wrong and narrowly avoided cartwheeling into a stand of Cholla cactus.
Suddenly, a deep voice came from behind. “Alright, boys. You two, get on over here, right now!”
He turned to see a highway patrol car parked at the shoulder. The officer from the freeway overpass stood alongside, his hands planted squarely on his hips, his broad black moustache bristling forbiddingly. Charlie walked slowly over to the car and stopped before the officer to accept judgment, his brother trailing slightly behind him nursing a bruised elbow.
“I’m Officer Cummins. I saw you from the Interstate. Just what in the Sam Hill do you idiots think you’re doing?”
Charlie considered a wisecrack, but for once in his young life was prudent and kept his mouth shut. He hung his head, appropriately contrite, and said nothing.
“What are your names and where do you live?” he demanded.
Charlie looked up at the officer. “I’m Charles Hoffman, sir, and this is my brother, John. We live at Saguaro View Terrace.”
“Okay then, boys. Let’s go. Into the back of the car with the both of you. We’ll have us a little chat with your parents.”
They drove through town and into the development where the boys lived, pulling up before a neat two-story with tan stucco sides and a red-tiled roof above. A long row of struggling Texas Sage guarded the sidewalk. An attractive woman in her late thirties came to the door, looking furious, and began hollering before the boys were even out of the car. “What have you two gotten into now?” she yelled.
The patrolman herded the boys to the porch and stuck out his hand. “Hello, ma’am. I’m Officer Cummins. Are you Mrs. Hoffman?”
“Yes, Officer. What have these two scats done now?”
He removed his hat, reluctant now that he saw the punishment these two boys were facing, somewhat chagrined at his part in it. “Well, ma’am, it seems your boys like to ride the UP into town is all. I caught 'em jumping off near 4th Street, over by the mall. Other than that, they’ve been quite well-behaved.”
She looked skeptical, but despite her anger was a bit charmed by this tall man with his dark eyes and handsome face. “I doubt that, Officer Cummins, but thank you for returning them to me. I’ll make sure their father deals with them accordingly. Get upstairs, young men, right now! And thank you again, Officer. Hopefully we won’t be seeing you again anytime soon. Have a good day, sir.” Before she could say another word, the boys fled through the foyer, into the living room, past the Christmas tree, and up the stairs to the relative safety of their bedroom, with Turk the black Lab barking at their heels.
Later that evening, they heard the dreaded footsteps of their father ascending the stairs. Johnny looked over at his brother. “It was your idea, Charlie.”
“That’s bullshit, John-O, and you know it.”
“You’re a jerk.”
“And you’re an ass…” Just then the door opened. Their father came in, looking tired, and sat on the bed. “Alright, which of you two cares to explain?”
“Well, Pop, it’s like this. Charlie thought it would be fun to…”
“You shut up, Johnny. You’re not putting this one on me, you doof…”
Their father raised his hands, “Okay, both of you stop it, right now. I don’t want to hear it.” Sensing the man’s distress, Turk came over and nuzzled his palm. “You’re a good boy,” he said, and scratched the dog behind the ears. He looked at Charlie. “Now, no more of your nonsense. Just tell me what happened.”
Charlie explained to their father how, earlier that summer, they’d noticed how the trains slowed as they passed by the development, and that in school they’d read a book about hobos. On a dare, they’d decided to jump on. “It’s boring around here, Pop. Ever since you moved us out here ...”
He raised his hand. “We’re not starting that discussion again. I already told you, I had no other choice.”
“Sorry, Pop. It’s just…it’s fun to sit on top of the train cars, and to ride into town and walk around the mall and stuff. And Johnny, he has a girlfriend that works at the 7-11 there and he…”
“I do not!”
Their father grinned. “Okay, boys. Enough of this. What you did was stupid and dangerous. You could have been killed. I’m grounding you both to the house for one week.”
The boys were stunned. “But, Pop. It’s Christmas vacation! That’s not fair.”
“This is your own fault, boys. You knew better. Any more complaints and we’ll make it two.”
They made it three days. On Wednesday morning after their twenty-second game of Halo, Charlie threw down his controller. “Let’s go see the Bleak-Man.”
“No, we can’t. You’re going to get us in trouble, stupid.”
“So what? C’mon, you girl, they’ll never know. Let’s go. Just for a little while, okay?”
“Hey, Gus. What’s going on?”
“Nothing. What are you guys up to? I thought your old man grounded you?”
Charlie slapped their friend Augustus Bleak on the back and said, “Yeah, well, what he doesn’t know won’t hurt him, right, Gus?”
“Yeah, sure. So what do you guys want to do? I’m bored out of my skull.”
At that moment, they heard the distant wail of the Union Pacific. Charlie grinned. “I’ve got an idea. Go get your jacket, Gus.”
The train was already moving at a good clip by the time they reached the crossing at the edge of the development. Charlie was the first on board, and reached down for a handful of Gus’s baseball jacket while Johnny shoved from behind. It was Gus’s first time on the train. Johnny jumped on behind him and swung up to the rail just before the gravel shoulder gave way to desert scrub. “Good fun, eh’, Bleak?”
As they reached the top of the car, they sat down in a semi-circle near the back. Gus smiled nervously. Charlie pointed to the tunnel, still a mile or so distant. “Now, don’t freak out when we get there. It looks tight, and you have to keep your stupid head down, but I’m telling you there’s room, okay? We’ve done it a million times.”
Gus snugged his Diamondbacks cap down around his head. He looked doubtful, but nodded in agreement. “Sure, Chuck. No problem.”
As they approached the mouth of the tunnel, Gus was increasingly apprehensive.
“You sure there’s room, guys?”
“Yeah, it’s cool. Just chill out, Gus. It’s okay.”
Gus began to sidle towards the edge, glancing anxiously between the darkness of the tunnel ahead and the ground speeding past below. “Jesus, you guys, I don’t know if I can do this.”
At that moment, they saw the bright headlight of the eastbound train, coming their way. The dim light of the tunnel was eclipsed and Charlie hooted in anticipation. Suddenly, Gus turned white with terror and grabbed for the rail. Johnny screamed at him, “No, Gus, don’t!” and reached for his legs as Gus slid face-first off the trailing end of the car. His baseball cap sailed high into the air.
Johnny yelled out, “Help me, Charlie. I can’t hold him.” Charlie leaped up and ran to his brother, heaving at Gus’s pants leg. He snagged the hood of Johnny’s sweatshirt, and saw Gus hanging upside down between the cars, dangling over the coupling. “Hold on, Gus, we got you, ” he yelled, but started to lose his grip on his brother’s gray sweatshirt. He grabbed at Johnny’s shoulders, struggling to pull their friend to safety, but it was no good. He was going to lose them both. With a tremendous effort, he seized his brother under the armpits, heaving him up and backwards. Johnny stumbled, but managed to wrap his arms around Gus’s legs and had dragged him most of the way back onto the train when the sun-warmed eastern wall of the overpass struck Charlie from behind at thirty miles per hour.
Charlie woke to see the kind face of Officer Cummins, kneeling over him. “It’s okay, boy. I’ve got you. You just hang on now. Help is coming.”
A momentary shadow passed over Officer Cummins’s dark eyes. “Don’t you worry about it, Charlie. Everything will be alright. You rest now.” Charlie closed his eyes.
Charlie climbed into the backseat of the family car, his mother in the passenger seat, his father behind the wheel. They drove through town, avoiding the Interstate, and arrived fifteen minutes later at the church. His father held his mother by the arm and led her inside. Her eyes were dry and glassy-looking. The caskets stood at the front of the church on gleaming metal platforms, and were covered in a soft, lavender-colored fabric. They had a vague floral pattern and looked soft and pleasant to the touch – Charlie wanted to rub his hand across it, to see how it felt.
His mother gave out a small gasp behind him, almost a hiccupping sound, and he turned to see his father lifting her from behind by the elbows, sort of carting her down the aisle on her heels and into the pew to the right of the lavender caskets. The church was filled with whispering. Charlie looked about at his friends and neighbors and then across the aisle to Gus’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. Bleak, weeping quietly beside the casket of their only son.
From the pew behind, there was Mrs. Berlanzer, offering his parents a brave smile; her husband reached across and clasped Charlie’s father on the shoulder. The Jensen family from two doors down was there across the aisle. Officer Cummins sat in his dress uniform three pews back. And in the back of the church, off to the right, two boys sat near the door, staring at Charlie. The one closest to him was dressed in a gray sweatshirt with the hood pulled up over his head; the other wore a baseball jacket and cap, snugged down low. His eyes glittered in the dim candlelight.
Charlie turned away, glancing again at the caskets only a few feet distant, and wondered what the boys looked like in there, and whether they’d been mangled by their passage beneath the train. It was rumored that Gus had been cut in half by the wheels. He considered for a moment that maybe, just maybe, Gus and Johnny were not really inside at all, that this was a joke, some kind of terrible mistake. But no – he turned again to look at the boys sitting in back, and knew the truth.
The minister entered the church and passed to the altar. After a moment of silence, he began. “Dear friends, we gather today to mourn the passing of two fine young men. We gather so that we may remember them, and praise them, and commend them into the loving arms of…” At that moment, Charlie’s mother shrieked and fell to the aisle, reaching out to the altar, sobbing uncontrollably. His father picked her up and carried her outside. Charlie followed. As they passed, his friends and neighbors watched in silence, grim-faced and sympathetic. Officer Cummins stood with tears in his eyes.
Charlie pushed through the double-doors and passed into the warm sunlight outside. He held the door for a moment, to take a final look at the people he left behind, at the caskets on their gleaming stands, at Officer Cummins standing grief-struck. And as he let the door swing shut, he realized that the boys who’d been sitting in the last pew were gone.
That night, he sat in the living room, alone with his parents. The TV sat flickering, unwatched and silent. Every few minutes his mother would weep quietly, helplessly. His Pop stared out the window, the drink at his elbow untouched. After a while, Charlie could stand no more; he said goodnight and went up to his room. As he reached the top of the stairs, he turned and called for Turk, but the dog sat whining at the bottom and refused to come. After a few tries, Charlie gave up and walked the short hallway to his room. As he opened the door, he groaned quietly in terror.
Johnny sat on the bed, his gray sweatshirt pulled over his head. The lower half of his face was stove in, his left arm swung loosely from a flattened shoulder. Gus sat opposite him on Johnny’s old bed, his baseball jacket split neatly across the chest from shoulder to hip, the two halves of his body leaning awkwardly against one another. He reached up to adjust his baseball cap, and smiled at Charlie standing in the doorway. As Charlie watched, Johnny stood on wrecked knees and shuffled across the room to embrace his brother.
“What…no. Johnny? What are you doing here? What…oh, no. Johnny!” He fell to his knees, sobbing. Johnny reached down to comfort his brother, lifted him up and carried him over to the bed and set him on the covers. A small noise came from the doorway, and Johnny turned to see his father standing there, Turk huddling at his side. The dog barked once, then tucked his tail between his legs and bolted down the hall. Their father stared after him for a moment, then reached in, turned off the light and closed the door to the bedroom. “Goodnight,” he said.
That night, Charlie dreamed of the boys. Johnny and Gus were running down the gleaming metal length of the tracks, small stones and gravel flying from their shoes as they fled. They were beautifully untouched, had not yet been crushed by the Union Pacific, had strength and breath and life left before them. And they were terrified. Behind them came the shrill whistle of the locomotive, bearing down on them, and they ran and they ran but still they weren’t fast enough. As they neared the tunnel, a toothless black mouth in the side of the Interstate, Gus tripped and fell and was instantly swallowed up by the churning steel wheels, his body dissolving into nothing more than a pink mist, floating on the desert air.
Johnny dared to look back, and over his shoulder saw Charlie at the controls of the locomotive, Gus standing alongside, a victorious grin stretched across his skeletal face. With one final blast of the whistle, Johnny fell beneath the wheels and was gone.
Charlie woke to the lonely sound of the train somewhere in the distance, and passed again into a fitful sleep.
The next morning, Charlie came down for breakfast. He walked into the kitchen to see his mother at the table, a bowl of cereal untouched before her, the carton of milk sitting warm at her elbow. “Mom, you need to eat,” he said, but before she could reply, Turk jumped from beneath the table and began to howl, a fearful baying which echoed off the walls and ceiling. Charlie’s mother started to shriek incoherently at the dog, “Stop it, oh please stop, you bastard!” His father rushed in, grabbed her by the arms and shook her gently until she fell to the chair crying. As his Pop opened the door to shoo the dog outside, Charlie saw Gus standing on the patio, peering in through the window. His baseball cap was perched jauntily on his head, and a silly grin sat on his ruined face. Through the open door, he saw his brother in the yard, waving for him to come outside. Charlie moaned in terror.
Later that day, his mother slept upstairs in her room. His father had left for work hours before. Charlie lay in his bed, but was finally unable to bear any longer the room he had once shared with his brother and came downstairs. As he passed through the living room, he saw the Christmas tree there, the gifts lying unopened, the tree weeping needles like brown tears. His brother huddled on the floor to one side of the tree, a small package in his hands. He looked up at Charlie with a look of terrible grief in his eyes, and motioned for him to come to him.
“Oh, Johnny, don’t do this to me. Why are you here? Why do you stay?” Charlie advanced on his brother, angry now. “Johnny, you’re dead!” he shouted. “You have to leave.” Johnny grimaced, but again motioned for Charlie to come over. And so Charlie came, and sat cross-legged on the floor opposite his dead brother. With trembling hands, he took the gift and opened it.
Within he found a small replica train whistle, on its side an image of a steam locomotive, engraved in beautiful detail. His breath caught, and a single tear fell on the train. As Charlie looked to his brother for answers, Johnny nodded mutely that he should try it. He raised the whistle to his lips and blew, sounding a terrific blast. Upstairs, his mother screamed in her sleep. But in the distance, Charlie heard the answering whistle of the Union Pacific, and suddenly knew what he must do.
Charlie walked along the tracks, listening for the train. He knew it wouldn’t be long now. The day was sunny and warm - he thought about his parents, and poor lost Johnny, the way Gus pulled his hat down low. As he approached the tunnel where his brother had died, he saw Office Cummins there, kneeling at the foot of a small wooden cross erected along the shoulder of the tracks. It was painted a glossy white with black lettering. Officer Cummins was weeping, “Oh, you boys. I’m so sorry. If only I could have stopped you. Good Lord, why? Why did you have to take these poor, dear boys?”
Charlie stopped behind the officer, reached out to touch his shoulder. “It’s okay, Officer Cummins. I’m sorry. You did the best you could. It was my fault. Everything is my fault.”
As Charlie’s hand fell upon the officer’s shoulder, a shudder ran through him and he spun around, a terrific look of fear on his face. He jumped to his feet. “Oh, Charlie. You scared the hell out of me. What are you doing here, son?”
“I needed to come, Officer Cummins. There’s something I have to do here.”
The patrolman, cautious now, looked down at Charlie. “What do you mean, boy? Are you okay?”
“Oh yes. Yes. I’ll be fine, sir.” He held up the whistle. “I just need to put this here, to…to remember Johnny and Gus.”
Officer Cummins glanced at the whistle in his hands. “Do you need a ride home, son?”
“No, sir, I can walk.” He hesitated. “And, sir? Thanks for taking care of me, after the accident.”
“You’re welcome, Charlie.”
Charlie watched as Officer Cummins climbed up the hill and back to his car waiting on the shoulder of the Interstate. As the car pulled away, Charlie turned to see Johnny and Gus standing next to him. “Okay, guys. I get it,” he said, and placed the whistle at the base of the cross. With the lonely sound of the Union Pacific coming down the tracks, he took the hands of his brother and friend, and sat on the tracks to wait.
BIO: Kip lives in Tucson, where he wastes time blogging about unimportant things at http://misterass.com. He writes to keep the flying monkeys away.
Launch: DECEMBER STORIES by Ian Sansom
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