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  • Writer's pictureTodd Stevens

The Trail.....scene one.

The hillside where he sat was steep and covered with a mix of broad leaf trees and scrubby pine. The sun was down over the western horizon and orange was spreading slowly upward from where it had disappeared, illuminating everything with a warm glow. Down below and to his right, he could hear a squirrel calling out its long machine gun-like warning. A little bat swerved wildly in an elliptical circle in front of him, occasionally emitting a little sonar squeak and then sharply turning to catch some unidentified insect. At the base of the hill was a clearing, and on the back edge of that clearing was a little yellow house with a big wrap around porch. Hummingbird feeders hung at intervals around the porch like red jewels, and white wicker deck furniture was arranged perfectly around a big hammered copper cauldron that they had spent hundreds of hours around making smores, laughing with friends, drinking wine. He stared down at the property and wondered if anything that he’d experienced there, was real, or if it was all just a lie. He looked down on the property as first blue, then black crept across the sky from the east, driving the light of the sun farther away until just a thin yellow line silhouetted the low mountains to the west. Finally he saw what he was waiting for, at first it was just a low flicker in the living room, the same living room where they’d watched movies together, laughed together, planned to conquer the world together. The low flames started out white and only caught his eye because he was searching for them. Within a few minutes they’d turned yellow and he could see them as if they were a campfire, then something cracked loudly and a moment later he heard glass breaking. The first long pale licks of flame snaked up at the eves of the house like demon tongues searching for something wicked. A flash of panic washed over him, and he half rose, his butt cold and damp from the soil, then he settled back, as if in mid motion he’d regained his composure. White sparks raced up into the sky like burning flies trying to outrace the fire. He sat mesmerized as every orifice in the house became filled with bright flames, as if the little house was bursting at the seams to contain all the fire. Far off in the distance he heard the first wails of emergency vehicles, and a few minutes after that he could see the red flashes of emergency lights flickering through the long silhouettes of trees that lined the road. He owned the house, and the land, and everything on the property was his, free and clear, and he didn’t plan on collecting a dime of insurance money, but he still wondered if he’d somehow broken the law. Big neon green trucks pulled into the yard and parked. Men wearing long yellow turnout coats, with strips of reflective material sewn strategically here and there jumped from the trucks. The fire had completely engulfed the house and when the hoses were finally turned loose, only one was directed at the house. The rest doused everything around the house so that the fire wouldn’t spread. He sat for a long time, somehow amused that he was so close to the action and they had no idea he was there. The streams coming out of the hoses collected light from the fire and made each arc of water look like an orange rainbow.

When the fire began to die, he stood and took one last look at what had been his universe, now a smoldering pile of wreckage, shouldered his pack, and walked slowly up to the ridge and over onto the other side. The valley below was dotted here and there with yard lights like someone had dropped glowing marbles and wherever the marbles stopped, they built a farmhouse because that’s where the light was. The path down the hill was heavily used by deer and beaten into the yellow grass of the hillside. He had walked it hundreds of times and followed it in the dark with little trouble. Once at the bottom of the hill he dropped his pack over a barbed wire fence and then rolled under the bottom wire and stood before arranging the pack comfortably onto his shoulders again. He climbed a little barrow pit shoulder and came out on a dirt road. He started walking. Far off to the south was the faint pink glow of a small town he knew well, to the east a few miles was the main highway and he could hear tires making a slick swooshing sound intermittently on it. A few times his pulse jumped into his neck and he questioned every decision he’d ever made, and especially the ones he’d made recently. He pushed all of it aside and stared up at the clear sky above him. The stars glinted and winked, and he could see the faint lavender of the Milky Way running the length of the valley. He looked up at it and listened to his footsteps muffled in the soft tan dust of the road, You ain’t a big deal…

While he walked he occasionally had to duck off the road and lay flat in order to dodge cars. After the third car passed he wondered if it was even necessary to stay hidden, he hadn’t committed any real crime …and then he answered his own question, yes. He had been walking south for nearly an hour before he came to the little stream he was looking for. It passed under the road through a galvanized culvert and then cut through green pasture that was lined with a tangle of willows. He followed the stream along a few feet out into the pasture to avoid the willows. Slowly he felt his way east over uneven ground. There were gopher holes and big slick rocks half embedded in the dirt and he measured every step, feeling with his toe before putting his weight down, like he was trying not to set off a steel trap. Bullfrogs called their rubbery song from somewhere in the stream, and to the south he heard the low moo of cows letting each other know where they were at.

One pasture connected to the other, but each was separated with a fence. Every time he took his little pack off, the sweat on his back where it had been resting felt cold from the cool night air. The distance seemed twice as far as it would have in daylight, partly because he couldn’t see to move fast, and partly because he was nervous. Nervous about the fire, nervous a flashlight would suddenly blind him, followed by questions, and nervous he was going to run into a pissed off bull he wouldn’t be able to dodge in the dark. He continued east until finally, in the distance he saw a car whip past at high speed, and he knew he was at the highway. He thought it must be late, otherwise he certainly would have seen more traffic.

The little stream passed under a concrete and steel bridge. Always in his mind’s eye he’d seen himself crossing under the highway through it, but there was so little traffic that he didn’t need to risk wet shoes. He climbed the embankment to the edge of the highway and looked in both directions. There were no lights as far as he could see. He walked over the highway and thought about how strange it was to be in a place that felt off limits, he couldn’t recall ever seeing anyone cross the highway on foot before, but maybe he’d never thought to notice. He dropped back down on the other side and followed the stream across a wooded lot. The brush was much thicker, but he made better time because he knew that area well, and there weren’t people or bulls to rouse. Something was annoying him and it took a few seconds to realize that it was his exhaustion that was irritating him. The day had been long and exceptionally taxing. He stopped and weighed his options. Crickets called rhythmically, and the squeaking whine of mosquitos zipped into his ears. He swatted at them reactively, and wondered if he should stay there for the night or push on. You’ve come this far, he whispered. He started again, his movements seemed so loud, like screams in the dark night. At the far edge of the woods he saw what he had been looking for. Broken rock, light colored in the dark, and atop of the rock, railroad tracks. He climbed up and started following the tracks to the south, the chemical smell of tarry creosote hung over the tracks and filled his nostrils. Another set of tracks ran parallel to the ones he was on. Even in the dark he knew where he was now. He hurried along, listening for trains, but only hearing the occasional small rodent as it scurried through dry leaves and grass. As he approached his destination he could see a series of stark white yard lights that marked the little rural switch station. He walked off the tracks and down to the side to avoid direct light. He knew this yard wasn’t patrolled often, but he was sure it was occasionally visited by security. There was a large stack of pallets at one end and he used the shadow it created to approach the edge of the diesel soaked yard. He stood stock still and checked his breathing as much as possible. There were a couple dozen cars in the yard, but no engines. A little truncated trailer house with a big white light illuminating it was positioned at the far eastern edge of the yard. He watched and listened carefully for ten minutes and the only life he saw was the halo of insects that swarmed the big white lights. He jogged out and between the cars, nervous, sweating, crouching and looking under the cars to see if legs were running for him, but there were none. Halfway down the second train there was an open car. He turned an ear and listened to see if anyone was inside. He knew the lonely yard wasn’t a hobo hot spot, but he didn’t want to disturb anyone on the off chance someone was sleeping in the car. It was silent. He tried to hoist himself into the car, and it was a much bigger chore than he’d anticipated. It wasn’t until he threw his pack in and had tried four times that he finally got in. He went to the darkened end of the box and pulled out his sleeping bag and unrolled it. Then he positioned the pack as a pillow, took off his shoes and climbed in. He couldn’t ever remember being more exhausted, and yet even as he drifted he thought of all that had happened in the last year. He wondered if she knew about the house. Did she think he was dead…did she care? And then he was sleeping, like he’d fallen into a pool of black ink, motionless, dead sleep.

At 4:30 in the morning there was a bang that shook him instantly awake. He sat up confused and scared for a moment. The door was shut. A second later he heard and felt a jarring clang, then a series of clangs one after the other like a metallic echo, the engine had backed up to engage and it set off a chain reaction of clangs one after the next. He sat and waited for something, and then it came, low squealing of some metal part rubbing against another and then motion. They were moving. As the inertia started to drive the train forward he laid back down. Where are we going? He answered himself, It doesn’t matter.

The road behind him was gone, the road in front of him was all there was..

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