The Trail...scene three
The high pitched howl of steel on steel friction, followed by the shuddering of the slowing train woke him. He sat up quickly, and frantically reached around for something in the dark, he hadn’t meant to fall asleep. He was confused and disoriented for a few moments, and then, like looking through a wad of pictures, he put the story together and remembered his predicament. He opened and closed his hands a few times and could feel how stiff, sore, and puffy they were. He was used to using his hands, but not in the manner he’d used them all day. He moved his toes up and down and didn’t feel like they were going to cramp, and the jittering spasms in his legs had disappeared. He stood and walked carefully in the pitch black over to the wall and felt around until he found the hole he’d been using as a port. As far as he could see there wasn’t a single light, but he could hear traffic from a highway that was way off in the distance on the other side of the train. He got down on his hands and knees and found his pack and took out the flashlight and clicked it on. The tools he’d been using to dissect the floor were still there. From inside the pack he took out a can of sardines and used the can key to roll back the lid. Instantly the sharp smell of fish hit his nostrils. He opened the can of crackers and took out 4 of them and sat them on top of the sardines, then he turned the flashlight off to save the batteries. In the dark he inhaled the sardines, using his fingers as utensils, and then took his time and savored the crackers. Outside he could hear the engine idling way up ahead. It was just loud enough to mute any sounds around him. He wondered if someone would walk the train, and if they did he’d yell for them, better to be in trouble than dead. The shards of a dream came to him in flashbulb memories. He was in little league, but he was an adult, and then suddenly he was on a boat with his little league uniform still on and there was some event that he was supposed to be dressed for, and he was stuck in that little kid baseball uniform. For a second he searched for meaning in the dream, and then abandoned the idea. Some things are meaningless.
The temperature had dropped significantly by the time he heard the quick explosive sound of an air hose being uncoupled. The engine roared, then picked up steam and in five minutes he could no longer hear it. The sound of crickets became apparent, and the steady rush of traffic from the highway droned off in the distance. There would be no rescuer, and a sudden shot of fear fueled adrenaline shot through him. What the fuck have you done, the same thought kept nagging him over and over. The idiocy. He’d let emotion and exhaustion push him into the dumbest decisions he’d ever made. What kind of a moron does what you’ve done? Throw your whole life down the drain. Again he checked himself, now you’re in it, what’re you gonna do about it? He stood and looked out the hole, and then listened at it. Nothing. He felt his way over to where he had been working and located the hatchet. He turned the hammer side down and brought it down a little on the floorboard he’d sawed through. The sound was so incredibly loud in the dark. He waited for the echo to die and listened for feet moving in the crushed rock of the rail bed. Nothing. He hit it again, but much harder. The hatchet almost bounced. Shit, he was sure something would have given way, but it didn’t. He turned the hatchet blade side down and brought it down hard. It stuck in the wood, and he had to work it back and forth to get it out of the pinch. For the next 20 minutes he chopped and worked the blade loose until the wood was no longer pinching hard. He’d turned the piece he’d cut through into wooden broom straws. He took the multi tool and used the pliers to pinch a pencil sized piece of wood and then he pulled back and stripped away a long piece like a thin willow. He worked the same spot over and over for the next 15 minutes. He turned the flashlight on for a moment and looked at his work. The little crack that he’d started working on in the beginning was now two inches wide. He felt victory. He turned the flashlight off and used the hatchet to chop across the grain. Pieces of wood flew, and he could feel them sting his forearms and biceps. In the dark he felt the hole, it was widening fast now and he surged with confidence. His blows came faster and harder and soon the hole was big enough for his whole arm. He took a huge drink of water and breathed for a moment. I’m gonna get through you, you son of a bitch. For a second he pictured his mom and dad sifting through the ash of his home. He could hear them talking. His mom would be positive, “Tommy wouldn’t kill himself, I know that.” Then his dad would answer, “Well, we didn’t think he’d burn his fucking house down either, and he did a damn fine job of that.” As he thought of this imaginary conversation he resolved to let them know he was fine as soon as he could. What the hell were you thinking, you cruel piece of shit, leaving everyone in the dark and running like a chickenshit? He went back to work, hard and furious. Big pieces of wood split away, and within 10 minutes he knew he would live. He put everything back into his pack and checked to make sure he left nothing behind with the flashlight. Then he squeezed the pack through the hole, before dropping out feet first onto a black railroad tie. He pulled the pack out and slung it onto his back. He had no clue where he was, no idea what way to walk, and he was dizzy from exertion, but he had never felt such a sense of elation, and even the imaginary scene he’d played out of his parents' conversation couldn’t take the shine off of it. The train was stopped on a low bald hill and there were no lights anywhere to be seen except for a little trail of headlights way down in the bottom of a smooth valley. He knew the cars were moving fast, but at such a distance it looked like they were creeping, like ants carrying lanterns. Civilization has a strange draw, that’s why people have gathered for centuries in cities and towns. He started down the hill.
The night was oddly calm, and the temperature had dropped low enough that he took a hooded sweatshirt from his pack and pulled it on. He looked back up the hill and could see the shape of the train against the starry skyline. He knew he’d never forget the ordeal of escaping the boxcar, but he mentally framed that last glance before turning and walking toward the highway. There wasn’t a cloud in the moonless sky to obscure the sharp glittering of the stars. The further he descended, the air became heavier and more humid, and the dead grass that had crunched under his feet when he first started the descent turned green and folded over rather than breaking. Cold air lingered and he felt almost as if he’d walked into a house cooled by a swamp cooler, and it was accompanied by the smell of fresh water and clean dirt.
It took 35 minutes to walk within striking distance of the highway. Traffic had thinned out and the sound it made was no longer a constant roar, individual cars could be heard, the high airy sound of radials contacting pavement. Thick brush began to pop up in bunches, and the grass gave way to a tacky clay-like soil. He could feel it sticking to the bottom of his shoes. He came to a wall of thick willows and paused for a moment to listen. He could hear the quiet trickling of water on the other side of the brush. He followed the bank of willows along until he came to an opening. A small river passed between where he stood, and the roadbed, which had been built up significantly. He looked up the river and could see headlights reflecting on the surface of the water as they passed over it. A big cement bridge spanned the river, that’s where I’ll sleep, he thought. He walked along carefully because the traction of his shoes were filled with slick clay and he felt uncertain, like trying to walk across glare ice. Finally he was under the bridge. He used the flashlight to see his surroundings. There were massive broken boulders used as rip-rap on the shore of the river. Above the rip-rap and going up at a gradual slope was a long gravel bank. He walked up it and looked where the bridge met the road. There was a space 3 feet tall and 3 feet deep, a hollow concrete shelf, and that;s where he decided to sleep. He turned the light off and pulled out his sleeping bag and unrolled it in the spot, then he arranged his pack as a pillow. There was a cottonwood tree about 10 feet from the edge of the bridge and he walked over and peed by it. He stood and listened, the traffic had all but disappeared and it was very quiet. A small pool of still water formed a little bump on the side of the river, and he could see stars winking at him from the surface. He stood there and watched the stars both in the sky and in the water for a few minutes, and he tried to recall the last time he had gone more than two days without speaking a single word to another human, and he couldn’t recall ever having done it, not ever. He felt small, insignificant, and utterly alone. A million regrets flooded in, and even more wishes, and he realized they were intertwined. He thought about those he’d left behind that he loved, and he thought about those who had pushed him to it. He imagined for a second that he was God looking down on him, small, alone, tired. He wondered what God would think if he could hear his inner thoughts, what would he think? And then he realized God could hear his inner thoughts, and he wished there were things he could stop thinking about, things he could eradicate from his brain. He turned and went back to his bed and took off his shoes and climbed in. He pulled the bag up tight around him and ignored the gnawing of hunger in his belly, and he said a lazy half prayer as he drifted in and out of sleep, and then he was out, and God did see him.