The man who lives by the tracks is always watching. Standing in the dense thicket at the edge of his property, a vigilant stalker staring with empty socket eyes. Or from inside his house, the last one on the dead end. I’ve seen him peering through the grimy second-story window, the one with the shutters hanging limp like broken wrists.
He watches the trains pass like riotous thunder dripping with graffiti. He watches transient nomads make camp and he watches them disappear again. He watches coyotes sniff around dead fires left behind after bush parties, and he watches my friends smoke cigarettes after school.
There’s a clearing in the brush where we can hide from view and still see the trains. I crave the sight of the speeding box cars racing by in a blur, the way we all shout and cheer until they disappear. Then I step onto the vibrating steel rails, place one foot carefully after the other like I’m on a balance beam. I close my eyes and its like the entire world is stretched before me for a million miles.
Sometimes we see the man further down the tracks, watching us from a distance, and Ricky and Shelby hurl insults at him. Get lost, loser, or quit staring, pervert. I always tell them to knock it off, but Ricky’s mean, and Shelby doesn’t listen to anything I say. She thinks something’s going on between me and Ricky, but she doesn’t understand that I don’t care about him, I don’t care about anything here. I used to think something was wrong with me, that I wasn’t feeling things right, but I know if I could stow myself in one of those boxcars and be whisked away, I would unthaw.
They say the watching man’s brother died on the tracks a long time ago, and that’s why he watches. Like a nightmare on repeat, as if he can do something to stop it. My Grandad says the steel wheels ripped the brother’s legs off. I lay awake at night trying to imagine what that would be like, and all I can think of is the way Ma tries to stand on her own, but ever since Dad left, she can’t seem to do it anymore. Like he got ripped away from her and now she can’t walk straight, except he was ripped away by another woman, not a train. Grandad says it was temptation that carried Dad off, and Ma doesn’t say anything at all.
Grandad says I’ll be in for it if he catches wind of me going near those tracks. He doesn’t like me hanging around Ricky either, but I do both anyway because Grandad’s so busy worrying about Ma, he doesn’t notice much about me. He can’t see that there’s a kind of turbulence inside me, a tiny tornado churning into something devastating. So I slam screen doors and walk the trails. Down to the spot where I know I’ll be distracted by Ricky and Shelby and whoever they dragged along that day.
Friday nights we light fires in a rusted garbage can and sit around singing songs. Once, I drank too much gin, and months of torment loosened and spilled out like water. It was Ma, the way she couldn’t stop moping around about Dad. And the tracks, they filled me with an ache that swelled in my throat like a bruise. I snuck into the woods to be alone, sat down on a fallen tree trunk, holding myself to keep warm. Twigs snapped and I pictured coyotes tearing me to shreds but it was only the man, looking at me from between two branches. I opened my mouth to speak, but he ran off like a startled deer.
After that I started going to the tracks alone, early on Sunday mornings. The crisp air of the dawn gives me peace, like I used to feel in church when I was small. Every week I feel the eyes of the watching man on my back, and I’ve become dependant on this offering of reassurance from a stranger.
This morning my college acceptance came in. Ma cried. Said she doesn’t want me to go, accused me of abandoning her like my father. Grandad said we couldn’t afford it, that I should take a job in town, help Ma pay the bills. I owed them that much, they said, and I got up and walked out the door. Turned the corner and started sprinting straight down to the dead end.
The screech of metal filled my ears and sparks flew from the grinding wheels of a long freight train. I ran beside it until I collapsed in the mud and screamed. It flew past me like a bullet, so close I could reach out and touch it. Resentment rushed from my mouth and drowned in the cacophony of sound. I felt a hand on my shoulder. The watching man crouched beside me, his face floating like a ghost.
“You’ve got to get out of here” he said, and I knew he didn’t mean here. He meant this town. He meant this state of unrest, he meant all of it. I saw a whole person behind the watching man’s eyes, the person he should’ve been, and I understood then that the cost of trying to heal someone else’s sorrow is far too high. That we all have our own burdens to carry, and the weight of someone else’s will crush us.
Sara Dobbie is a Canadian writer. Her work has appeared in places like Menacing Hedge, Maudlin House, Trampset, Ellipsis Zine, and elsewhere. Follow her on Twitter at @sbdobbie, and on Instagram at @sbdobwrites.