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  • Writer's pictureTodd Stevens

The Trail...scene two

Sharp white sunbeams cut through the black of the boxcar like white lasers. He had rolled up his bag and stowed it and was looking out a fifty cent piece sized hole in the wall of the car. Rolling hills covered with pine trees were all he could see for miles. He tried to calm the pounding fear in his chest that made him want to scream and lose control. In his sheer exhaustion he’d made a horrible mistake. When the door of the car was slammed shut, there was no way to open it from the inside. If he couldn’t find a way out, he would die a slow death. He cursed himself, what the hell were you thinking? He hadn’t been, he needed sleep terribly. He remembered the woods the night before and wished with all his heart he’d have slept there instead of deciding to push on. Calm down, you have some time. He opened his pack and took out a liter bottle of water and a 20 ounce bottle of gatorade. He also had vienna sausages and sardines that had liquid. He calculated quickly that he had about 60 ounces of liquid. If he remained inactive and rationed what he had, he might be okay for 5 or 6 days. He thought of the train car sitting on a desolate stretch of Nebraska plains, no one there to help him, or hear his screams, and then he shoved the thought away. No sense in dying before it actually happens. He chastised himself again, what the fuck is wrong with you? He sat against the wall of the boxcar and drew his knees up against his chest and wrapped his arms around them. Where am I? The bravado of the night before had vanished, now he cared where he was at, now he cared a lot. What the hell is this accomplishing anyway? I probably look like a damn fool to everybody… He thought of his mom pacing and chewing her nails until they bled, worried sick about him. He pictured his dad standing on the deck smoking a cigarette cupped in his hand, probably thinking, You really fucked up this time Tommy. Strangely, he didn’t regret the fire. The fire didn’t just consume material things, it consumed all he had been and all he had lost, he was glad it was gone

The temperature in the boxcar climbed by the minute. He tried not to move any more than necessary because he didn’t want to perspire and lose water. Every now and then he looked out the hole to see if there were any landmarks he recognized, and there never was. He laid with his head on his pack and he thought of all the mistakes he’d made to get where he was at, laying on the floor of a boxcar that he couldn’t escape. Maybe I’ve picked my own casket, he thought. Then he rebuked himself, stop it, don’t be a quitter. He remembered the day during his Sophomore year when he’d come home after a particularly rough basketball practice. They had just finished dinner and his dad held the paper up in front of him blocking his face from view.

“Hey dad?”

“Yeah?” His dad lowered the paper just enough to make eye contact, Tom could see his black, thick framed glasses that had once been polished and shiny, but were now dull. “What Tommy?’

“I think I’m going to quit basketball.” He felt a sense of relief, he’d finally said it. His father looked at him with absolutely no expression on his face, like he was examining a thumbnail. He looked for a long time before raising the paper again. “No, you will not quit basketball. You will finish this season, you’re in it now, you committed and you will not quit.” The room fell quiet, his dad’s word was always the last word. “You’re in it now…” His father repeated again. Tom looked out the hole in the side of the boxcar at the low mountains, which were turning amber, and thought, The sun must be setting. He sat back down and repeated his father’s words out loud, “You’re in it now.” And he was.

The feeling of tight panic in his chest did no good, just as screaming and banging on the door of an empty boxcar in motion would do no good. He collected himself and thought about what he had with him aside from the water. He dug into a side pocket of his pack and pulled out a flashlight barely bigger than a pen light. He stuck it in his hip pocket rather than turning it on immediately because he knew the battery life was limited. Methodically he pulled things from the pack and lined them up in the dark. Once everything was out of the pack he clicked the flashlight to life and scanned his belongings. Aside from a couple changes of clothing, he had the sleeping bag, two small plastic boxes that held some basic fishing gear, aspirin, Neosporin, bandages, and other first aid items. He had a utility knife, a 6” filet knife, a 5” folding hand saw, a 25 foot length of paracord, a small hatchet with its blade protected by a leather scabbard, a folded 10’ square of clear, heavy plastic, 3 butane lighters, 2 metal kabob skewers, a boy scout kit he’d had since his youth that folded out into a frying pan, cooking pot and drinking cup, 2 spoons and 2 forks, 2 cans each, sardines, Vienna sausages, and pork and beans. He also had 3 packs of Ramen, salt and pepper, a bottle of tabasco sauce, a small tin filled with soda crackers, a bottle of instant coffee, and a baby food jar full of sugar. Carefully he stowed everything back into the bag like a 3D puzzle. He left out a can of the sausages, a half dozen crackers, his water, the folding camp saw, the utility knife, and the hatchet. He sat with his back against the wall of the boxcar and felt the rumbling of the rails from the base of his spine up through his chest, reverberating like a metal drum and tickling something inside his neck. He popped the top of the sausage can and ate each sausage with a cracker before washing them down with a measured sip of water. After he’d started eating, it stimulated something in his brain and he realized how ravenous he’d become, and he had to fight off the urge to eat and drink everything he had. You don’t know how long you’re going to be stuck in here dumb shit, ration your things. He put the empty can from the sausages carefully where the liquid wouldn’t be spilled, but decided against drinking the salty fluid until it became absolutely necessary. He stood up and began walking around the car checking out every point of light. Besides the hole that he’d used as a port to see outside, there were another dozen holes in the metal walls, most of which were the size of a bullet. He imagined a kid perched on a desolate, bald hill looking through a scope before pulling the trigger of a 30:06 and poking a hole through the box. In front of the door and about a third of the way into the box he could see ground passing by through a thin sliver of a crack in the hardwood floor. He crouched down and ran his thumb over the spot and felt a ledge catch. He retrieved the hatchet, saw, and utility knife, then sat on the floor with the sliver crack in front of him, his legs spraddled to each side. He unfolded the saw and tried to fit the blade into the crack but the opening was too narrow, and even if it had been wide enough, the blade wouldn’t have been able to catch traction in the wood. The utility knife had several implements, but he chose the knife blade to begin with. If he held it at the right angle and passed it along with the grain of the wood, long thin hairs of wood peeled off. The flooring was flint hard though, and he would likely die of dehydration before he was able to work a hole in it big enough to get the saw blade into. He took the scabbard from the hatchet and positioned himself so that he was sitting with the grain and not against it. He swung the hatchet down with a bang, and was worried about the sound he’d made until he realized there was no one to hear it. Chopping into the dense hardwood was like trying to chop granite. The hatchet dented the wood and then bounced up in recoil. Again and again he brought the hatchet down, trying his best to hit into the narrow sliver of light between the floorboards. The heat inside the car was stifling, and the effort he put into swinging the hatchet brought persperation immediately to his head, and he had to repeatedly wipe sweat from his eyes with the arm of his t-shirt. After a dozen swings he felt the spot with his thumb and could feel the bristle of wood splinters. He used the pliers on the multi-tool to grab and tear away the wood splinters. He repeated the same process over and over for an hour. He didn’t think about anything but the task at hand the entire time, because he knew his life could depend on it. There was something oddly satisfying about being so single minded in purpose. He was undistracted by inner turmoil for the first time in as long as he could remember. Chop, chop, wipe sweat, pull with the pliers, carve with the knife, create the hole. Finally, after trying to fit the saw in a dozen times, he was able to work the blade down into the crack and get it turned enough to bite into the wood. He celebrated by taking a drink of gatorade, then laying on the floor with his arms spread wide and feeling the rumble of the tracks in his butt, spine, and heels where they rested. The train hadn’t slowed for hours, and he knew he was a long way from home. Here and there he heard the train whistle and knew they were passing through towns, but he had no idea if they were towns to the east or the west or wherever. He began sawing across the board, but the wood was so dense, and so flinty, that twenty minutes of sawing only moved the blade an inch or so. Night began to fall and for the first time he could feel the train slowing. He’d been sawing for about two hours and had finally made it across a whole floorboard. He was beginning to cramp terribly. His thumbs wanted to bend way backwards and his toes were curling down, and he could feel jittery spasms in his legs from lack of hydration. A wager crossed his mind. Should he drink enough to rehydrate so that he could finish punching through the floor and eventually escape his prison? Or, should he conserve his water so that he could last long enough for someone to finally open the door and save him? One road was passive and less confident, but maybe smarter, the other was more confident, but perhaps more foolish. He laid on the floor again and thought about his dilemma deeper. His choices had always been sound, that’s how he’d been raised. A man made the wise and traditional choice. If it was 1978 and he was given a choice to buy stock in Coca Cola, or Apple, the choice was obvious, Coca Cola was proven, there was no risk. That’s why he had stayed and worked as a butcher for so long, because it was safe, and he knew the profession well. He would certainly always have something to eat as a butcher, career happiness be damned. When he was young and the other kids lined their bikes up and took a run down Sand Hill to a rickety jump made of pressboard and old pallets, and then moments later ran screaming and crying to their mothers after crashing, he didn’t, because he always made the sound choice. He forever thought of every reason something wouldn’t work, instead of the reasons it would work. He sat up, grabbed the gatorade and drained it in four long pulls. Then he laid back and closed his eyes to rest until the rehydrating fluid did its work. The hell with it, I’m betting on myself.

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