The Other Side of the Railroad Tracks

            In the summer when I was twelve, I could still feel myself growing and changing along with the growth of the cornfields. I felt it especially during late July, when green stalks rose tightly together, I felt strong and lean and full of life, too.
            I remember how instead of watching my older brother play baseball, I would find myself sitting in the tree line, looking out across the railroad tracks to gaze at the long lush fronds that appeared to be holding hands, forming a chain that would remain untainted until the harvest in September. Except, of course, by worms and lightning bugs and stray cats. All the kids who weren’t playing in the baseball tournaments, including who I thought was my best friend at the time, Clara, would occupy the space just outside the field among greenery, the railroad tracks, and the cornfield.  
            But that summer was also the last year my older brother would play a baseball tournament in our hometown of Caster, Iowa. The last day of the tournament meant the end of summer was near, and school would soon begin. It must have been at least five innings into the game before I went to the tree line, and I knew my light skin would fry if I kept sitting in the bleachers with my mom. My younger brother, Trey, was getting anxious, too. Mom wouldn’t let him play in the trees if I wasn’t with him, even with all the other kids bobbing in and out of the trees.
            Finally, after Trey had lugged a metal bat from a rack near the dusty wooden dug-out and pounded enough dirt around the bleachers for a sandstorm to appear he asked, “Don’t you want to get out of the sun, Holly?”
            Tink! Parents roared and jumped on the bleachers as another grounder made it to the outfield. The teenagers leaped around puffy bases and one slapped his foot on home plate.
            “As long as I can see you two, you can play with the others,” our mother noted through claps and whistles. “And stay off the tracks this time?”
            I huffed deeply and pushed red curls off my wet forehead, gazing to the only sliver of shade in the ballpark. Trey knew I didn’t want to sit and watch the game, but I was avoiding the trees for a reason. Even back then I knew the importance of keeping distance from uncomfortable situations. I fought with myself over going to the other kids to play. I watched the girls and boys uninterested in baseball championships run around tall pines and oaks that separated the ballpark from the railroad tracks like a swaying green Wall of China. My heart fluttered nervously when I caught a glimpse of Clara swinging on a low branch. She was the real reason I was avoiding the other kids.
            Clara had a kind of power over the all the kids because she was older than all of us. She was only a couple weeks older than I was, but she always reminded me of her superior age. However, I was the only girl among the bunch of summer kids in town, and she took a liking to me last summer when our brothers played ball together for the season. We spent long summer nights camping out in tents and ate bowls of vanilla ice cream swimming in milk. That summer, all of the kids found great joy with the discovery of coin-smashing on the tracks. Clara and I loved the luring beams that stretched to infinity, the giant boxes of trains that zoomed by as we waited to find the coins we strategically placed on the beams. The rush of wind and heat we felt from standing near the passing trains made us giggle uncontrollably.
            But a week prior, I accidently got Clara grounded. Her parents were stricter than mine, and I showed Clara’s mom a quarter that was smoothed out by the train, with the features of Washington’s face completely gone, flattened and smoothed by hot train wheels, not thinking of any consequence but excited to show the flattened silver. Then Clara couldn’t go to the movies, or out to ice cream, and she had to sit on the bleachers with the adults the entire baseball game.  
            Today she was off the hook, and I was afraid to approach her because I knew Clara had used her superior age to convince the kids that I was a tattle-tail. She had done it last month to a boy who also got her in trouble. He was sitting on the bleachers in front of me, he had stayed there all month, and with school around the corner, I didn’t want to be that kid. I didn’t want to be alone all year, with no one to sit with. Clara’s power extended into school groups as well, after all.
            Finally, I found the courage to accompany Trey to the trees with the other kids. I had to talk to Clara, even apologize if I found it necessary. Sitting in the hot sun wasn’t worth a whole year of being known as a rat, if not longer. I kept my eyes on Clara while Trey pushed a branch back with his bat.
            Comforting scents of earth and grass filled my lungs as the passed into shade. I sat on a bed of orange pine needles, digging my fingers into the cold, soft dirt, thinking what I would say to Clara, to get back in her good graces. A few boys ran past me with Clara hot on their heels, laughing with her arms reaching for the boys.
            “Clara!” I called. She swung her head sharply in the opposite direction. She disappeared around the trunk of the oak I leaned against. I guess it was going to take a little more effort than that.
            I watched Trey and some boys slide down to the rock ditch sitting like a valley between the trees and the tracks. They threw rocks at each other and at the tracks. Then, a little blond boy ran  up to the group boys, shouting, “I found something!” He had come from the tracks, a little ways down. Clara and the other kids gathered on the tracks. Everyone left the trees to hear what the boys had to say.
            Now was a chance to talk to Clara, since she wasn’t running around. I got up from my shaded area and went right behind Clara, tapping her on the shoulder just as she was saying, “Let’s go!” The boys and Clara headed to where the blond boy had come from.
            Trey trotted over to me, cascading rocks under his tiny feet. His green eyes sparkled up at me.
            “You wanna see?” he asked, tugging on me. He was used to me going everywhere with him.
            “You know we’re not supposed to play on the tracks, Trey.” I didn’t want to budge, I didn’t want to get anyone in more trouble. Trey’s brow furrowed. His lips and cheeks puffed up.
            “I’m gonna go.” His short legs strained to climb up the rocks and gravel with the others. A few kids walked on top of the thick beams, arms out like yellow crossing signs for balance.

            I didn’t want to sit in the trees by myself. And I wasn’t going to go back to the stands, although I thought it was funny watching the pitcher’s knee rise like a flamingo’s as he wound up to release a curve ball. I still had to talk to Clara.
            As I caught up with the others, the railroad gleamed as white as the sun in hot straight lines. They looked like glowing parallel arrows that led straight to a crumpled black lump. I felt like we all had teleported at an instant to the thing. We crowded the thing and everyone whispered. Clara found a plank that had shaken loose from the tracks and pushed through the kids.
            I followed behind, then grabbed Clara’s arm as I caught a glimpse of a scraggly brown and muddy cat lying on its side in a puddle of brownish-red. Its fur was matted and sticky in the hot afternoon. One of its legs angled irregularly over the large track, and a small white bone jutting out. The cat seemed to be sleeping with its eyes were half-closed on a brown stain that had formed in the gravel. It didn’t even move as we all closed in. I guessed it barely escaped death by an oncoming train, but its leg got caught and hit. It couldn’t have been there long. It must have happened earlier in the morning, but I wasn’t sure.
            Clara pulled her arm out of my grasp and poked the thing gently with the plank. Fur moved in towards the stomach, but nothing else happened. A few boys let out short laughs and smiled.
            “Is it dead?” I whispered. The boys all murmured and deliberated. “We should just go back to the trees.”
            Clara scoffed and put her hands on her hips. At least I was getting her attention.
            Those with bats jabbed at the cat again. This time, the cat’s silver eyes bulged open. Its hanging mouth unhinged from its jaw, letting out a loud screech, like metal train wheels squealing against rusty metal railroads. The screech rung in our ears. Sound stuck itself on our  bones, sending chills through us, screeching into eternity with the distance of the tracks. The mangled foot on the other side of the beam twitched, and the red puddle grew over more rocks and wooden train track planks.
            One boy jumped at the sound and swung his metal bat down on the wounded animal’s muzzle. The shrieking stopped. A few gasped in surprise.
            “I didn’t mean to! It scared me!” the kid said, trying to justify his actions. Black and red trickled from the cat’s mouth, clotted in its furry chin. The silver eyes stared down the tracks.
            “It’s dead now,” Clara snickered.
            “I’m surprised our parents didn’t hear the thing!” a boy chimed. A soft roar of chants and cheers could be heard from the ballpark. The kids stared at the cat.
            “Well, we better make sure…” the blond boy raised a bat over his head and pulled the trajectory of the thick part of the bat down. It landed on the stomach of the cat. A puff could be heard from the cat, but the screeching didn’t begin again.
             Three other boys joined, laughing. I never told Trey how grateful I was that he wasn’t one of those boys. Clara and Trey and I watched the fur break away and catch in the breeze. A parade of thuds landed on the cat.
            I couldn’t believe it, but I couldn’t stop the boys from slamming their bats over and over like miners on the brink of striking gold. Pink innards and red and black liquid covered the tracks, the bats.
            None of the kids said anything as the beating ended. The boys were sticky with sweat. Clara threw the plank she had on top of the flattened mess.
            Heavy vibrations rattled up through the ground, and then through me. A rumbling reverberated off tall oaks, then a low gust of air came. We turned and saw a ball of fire heading toward us through the waves of heat rising off the train. Mechanical screeching ran through our ears.
            “Train!” Trey yelled. We all slid down the ditch and up into the safety of the dark trees.   The black train’s horn bleated three times. Heavy boxes of red and gray swished through the green cornfield and trees, over the plank Clara left, splitting it into bloody, splintered shanks.
            I sat on the edge of the trees, watching the mangled animal lie as they left it. A bubble swelled in my stomach. A few minutes passed along with the train. The tracks were clear again. The heat and wind from the caboose carried the scent of stinking fur. The smell made me want to lie back on the grass. I closed my eyes, inhaling deep through my mouth to avoid the smell.
            Most of the boys went back to the cat, to see what the train had done in addition to the mess they made. Trey stood over me as one of the boys asked in the distance “Can we leave it here?”
            Clara’s voice squealed through the air, “Not if Holly’s going to tell.”
             I looked at the kids looking back at me. Clara’s brown eyes were squinted half-moons, surrounded by overzealous crinkles. Her smile crinkled high into her cheeks.
            “She should get rid of it!” a small voice yelled from the group. The boys all nodded in agreement, their eyes never leaving me.
            “Awe, leave her alone, guys! She didn’t do anything!” Trey yelled back to them. A couple of the boys threw rocks at Trey’s feet.
            “She’s a tattle-tail!” A few boys murmured. I was right, Clara had said something. Now was my chance to say something back.
            “I didn’t mean to! I’ve been trying to apologize since we got over here. I didn’t know showing your mom the quarter would get you in trouble, Clara. I mean that. I’m sorry!”
            “You can prove how sorry you are by hiding this cat.”
            I never forgot those words, just like I never forgot the decision I made after.
            She didn’t even look at me, but looked at all the kids agreeing with her, smiling her usual deceptive, crinkly smile. Such a young girl shouldn’t have had so many creases around her eyes, folds down her nose as she snarled at me. It was that moment I begun to question our friendship. But I still wasn’t going to end up like that kid on the bleachers.
            “Why don’t we just leave it here? I don’t think our parents are going to walk down the tracks any time soon,” I said. It was true. Our parents never went past the tree line.
            “You aren’t sorry at all,” Clara taunted.
            “But I am! I am sorry. Why can’t you just accept my apology? I didn’t know you’d get grounded!”
            “You know how my parents are!” I could tell she was really upset about it. It seemed like every month Clara was getting grounded for something. I would have been sick of always being in trouble, too, I suppose. But I didn’t consider that maybe she was always grounded because she was actually a kid who was always misbehaving.
            “I didn’t think about it. I’m sorry.” The other kids were silent as the two of us stood there, staring at each other. Then, she walked toward me.
            “You can prove you’re sorry by getting rid of this cat. Everyone might get in trouble if our parents come back here, especially now that my parents know we play on the tracks.”
            It wasn’t what I was hoping to hear, but I was on the way to getting back into Clara’s favor and getting out of being a tattle-tale. I looked at my younger brother. He was looking up blankly at me. I knew he was always going to be a person I could depend on. I wanted him to tell me that I didn’t need to do anything, I didn’t need to prove anything to anyone but myself because those kids’ opinions meant nothing in the long run. Instead, Trey runs down the hill to catch a frog the boys have noticed hopping around. I’m left alone with Clara.
             “I’ll help you,” she said. She opened her hand to me. “We can bury it in the cornfield, but you have to help.”
            Clara always made the plans. She always had the big ideas.
            “You aren’t mad at me anymore?” I asked. I didn’t take Clara’s extended hand.
            “Mad?” Clara’s face assumed the role of an innocent girl. What I didn’t realize at the time was how her innocence was just a hoax to get me to follow her lead. Without my consent, Clara grabbed my hand anyway. “C’mon, we need to get a towel from the concession stand and get it off the tracks. Unless you wanna use your hands.” Clara yanked hard and I felt like I was stuck, I had to obey her. She didn’t let go of me as she lead me back to the ballpark.
            No one in the stands noticed us walk behind the fenced outfield to the snack stand. Clara stepped behind me as we approached the chipping white building. The screen was half torn-off in front of the moustached man behind the window. He was one of the dads who volunteered every season to run the snack bar. I took the towel from the man and Clara immediately turned and began to walk back to the tracks. I followed close behind, wadding up the towel in my hands, deliberating going back to the stands, fighting the urge to back down.
            “You gonna do it?” a boy yelled as Clara and I walked down the rail road to the black and red mess. Neither of us said anything.
            It seemed like thousands of flies were circling and tagging the carcass. A few tiny gnats stuck themselves to a staring eye. Clara grabbed the larger half of the plank she used earlier. “Put the towel down.”
            I fluffed out the towel like we were setting up a picnic blanket, smoothing out the corners as far as the towel would stretch. Clara held out the plank to me.
            “You can to do this.”
            I should have retorted, told her I wasn’t going to play her game.
            Instead, I took the plank. I shoved it as hard as I could under the smashed cat, somehow still a single mass, except for the foot that had been derailed by the train. I felt my mouth quivering and my eyes closed as the cat’s imploded face rolled to face me. I was holding my breath as I pushed, scooped a heavy mass of fur and guts and gravel on the plank. Then I shook it all loose on the towel. The mess rolled lethargically down the plank like giant uncooked ground beef onto the clean towel. A brown outline of a shriveled cat had stained the rocks and railroad. There was nothing to clean that up. Clara covered the tiny severed paw by kicking a pile of big rocks on top of it.
            I folded up the corners of the towel and lifted the package. I felt bones and slimy insides shift around, but I was determined not to have anything fall back to the ground. I looked at Clara’s squinted face, the familiar snarl she always seemed to have.
            “Let’s go.”
            I obeyed, holding the towel in front of me, my arms out at full length. The bottom of the towel had begun to spread with a light shade of muddy brown. I continued to hold my breath, my chest puffed up as we tripped along the rocks to the opposite side of the tracks. The corn loomed above us, like British soldiers that wouldn’t let us pass. The breeze swished the stalks lightly, and they rattled a hollow warning. Clara expertly dodged and dipped through the thin green shoots. The compactness of the stalks made it hard for me to keep the wrapped towel at arm’s length. I lead with my arms stiff, weaving through the countless green shoots behind Clara’s path. Clara stopped when the tracks were out of sight.
            Around us was nothing but thick green leaves, shoots like bamboo with fountains of brown cob hairs spouting from all sides. The weight of the towel and pushing with my arms through the stalks made me shake with weakness. I dropped the towel between her and I, and it made a soft oof. Part of the towel slid away, revealing a clump of black and brown. Clara handed  me the plank and said, “Dig.” So I stuck the plank into the moist, dark ground and churned a pile of soil loose. Ears of corn shook above us as I rolled the towel into the hole. I was the only one to kick dirt over the towel. A small glimpse of dirty cloth could still be seen through the hole when I finished.
            I looked down at the dirt pile nestled between two rows of stalks. My mouth felt glued shut. I wanted to say something, anything. I had followed her lead as I always had. It was at that moment I knew I would never follow the lead of someone or something I didn’t agree with. Clara looked up into the blue sky, and let out a short breath through her nose.
            “It’s hot. We should get some water,” Clara decided. She took my hand in hers again, like a mother holding a small child’s hand. We headed back the way we came. Clara didn’t look back at the pile, but I did. I watched the pile disappear into the fortress of the corn. We emerged from the green and found the railroad was empty and silent. A burst of claps were heard from the field.
            Then I finally said, “I’m not a tattle-tale. You’re my friend.” Clara gave me a big toothy smile, her cheeks like small round plums and squeezed my hand.
            “What are you talking about? I know that,” Clara said in a syrupy tone. We walked to the stands where a giant blue cooler had bottles of water submerged in an ice bath. I saw the baseball players were in lines like caterpillars, giving the other team high fives and sputtering “good game” to one another. Clara grabbed one of the bottles from the cooler and took a big gulp. “We were just playing in the trees.” Clara was right, there’s nothing to worry about with our parents.
            Everyone gathered left-over snacks and blankets. No one paid attention to the train blurting its horn three times when it passed the field, as the trains always did, without a care or a notice to the tracks, the trees, the cornfields that contained more than nature reveals.
            I was the only one who looked back toward the trees waving their branches good-bye with a gust of wind. A rumbling was heard in the distance that filled my hollow cavity, then a long metal screech tore through the air. I watched little green flags of Kentucky blue grass wave to the train, signaling for it to stop, to look for everything lost to the field, or to the soft brown dirt that easily hides a secret. I heard an owl hoot quietly. Night was near. The owl screeched louder, knowing what I did under the influence of someone else. I watched the sliver of sun sink under the train tracks with the moon as white as a cat eye, watching me from the sky.
            At the time, I fully blamed Clara for disconnecting me from the magic of the fields. I felt as tainted as the soil I stuck the cat in. When school started up again, I had enough time to realize that I didn’t need to prove my loyalty to anyone. I especially didn’t need to prove it to Clara by hiding a poor innocent cat that I had nothing to do with.
            I didn’t feel the same connection with the fields surrounding our small community after that day. Sometimes even in my older age, I still watch the wind moving through fields, and can’t help wondering if ghost cats were slinking through the stalks, moaning the same moan as passing trains, all covered in muck and blood.

 

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