This must be a dream, because I am me, thirty and bodiless but I am seeing me, in the summer when I am twelve. I am passing thin-box buildings on bike, the chipping yellows and white painted over the bricks wag at me as I ride through Main Street, USA, with the Cash-only diner that opens at five a.m., the South Bend Chocolate Company store with navy and yellow malted balls in the windows. I can still feel myself growing and changing along with the growth of the cornfields. I feel it, yes, it is late July, when green stalks rise tightly together, I am strong and lean and full of life, too.
I ride through town to the railroads tracks, follow a dirt path that guides me to the baseball diamonds where my brothers play. Instead of watching the boys play baseball, I find the tree line, cool. I look out across the railroad tracks to gaze at the long lush fronds that appeared to be holding hands, forming a chain that remains untainted until harvest in September except, of course, by worms and lightning bugs and stray cats. All the kids who aren’t playing in the baseball tournament fill in the space just outside the field among greenery, the railroad tracks, and the cornfield beyond.
Tink! Parents roar and jump on the bleachers as another grounder made it to the outfield. The teenagers leap around puffy bases and one slaps his foot on home plate. This summer is the last year my older brother will play before he heads off to High School baseball, I can tell by the newly constructed recession station, fumes of paint following the wind. Comforting scents of earth and grass fill my lungs, too. I sit on a bed of oranging pine needles, digging my fingers into the cold, soft dirt. A few boys run past me with Clara hot on their heels, laughing with her arms reaching for the boys.
I will never forget her. Clara has a kind of power over the all the kids because she’s older than all of us. However, I was the only girl among the bunch of summer kids in town, and she took a liking to me a few years before when our brothers played ball together for the first time. We spent long summer nights camping out in tents and ate bowls of vanilla ice cream swimming in milk we poured into the icy mass.
“Clara!” my twelve-year-old self calls. She swings her head sharply in the opposite direction. She disappears around the trunk of the oak I lean against. I watch some boys slide down to the rock ditch sitting like a valley between the trees and the tracks. They throw rocks at each other and at the tracks. I watch as a little blond kid runs to the boys and Clara, shouting, “I found something!” He had come from the tracks, a little ways down. Everyone leaves the trees to hear what the boys have to say.
Do I want to sit in the trees by myself? Thirty-year-old-me tries, but my tiny feet begin to wander. The railroad beams gleam as white as the sun in hot straight lines, they look like glowing parallel arrows that lead straight to a crumpled black lump. We all teleport at an instant to the thing. We crowd the thing and everyone whispers. Clara finds a plank that had shaken loose from the tracks and pushes through. I follow behind closely, grabbing Clara’s arm as I catch a glimpse of a scraggly brown and muddy cat lying on its side in a puddle of brownish-red. Its fur is matted and sticky in the hot afternoon. One of its legs angles irregularly over the large track, and a small white bone juts out. The cat seems to be sleeping with its eyes half-closed, although it’s laying on a brown stain that has formed in the gravel. It doesn’t even move as we all close in. We all speculate, it probably happened earlier this morning, but no one is sure.
Clara pulls her arm out of my grasp and pokes the thing gently with the plank. Fur moves in towards the stomach, but nothing else happens. She scoffs and puts her hands on her hips. A few boys let out short laughs and smile. Those with bats jab at the cat again. This time, the cat’s silver eyes bulge open. Its hanging mouth unhinged from its jaw, lets out a loud screech, like metal train wheels squealing against rusty metal railroads. The screech rings through us, the town. The sound sticks itself to our bones, sends chills through us, screeches 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 swings his metal bat down on the wounded animal’s muzzle. The shrieking stops. A few gasp in surprise.
“I didn’t mean to! It scared me!” the kid says, scratching the bat on the rocks. Black and red trickled from the cat’s mouth, clot in its furry chin. The silver eyes stare down the tracks.
“If it wasn’t, it’s dead now,” Clara snickers. A soft roar of chants and cheers come from the ballpark. We stare at the cat.
“Well, we better make sure…” the blond boy raises a bat over his head and pulls the trajectory of the thick part of the bat down. It lands on the stomach of the cat. A puff comes from the cat, but the screeching doesn’t begin again. Fur breaks away and catches in the breeze. A parade of thuds land on the cat.
I can’t stand it, but I can’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 creep down the tracks, the bats. None of the kids say anything as the beating ends. The boys are sticky with sweat. Clara throws the plank she has on top of the flattened mess.
Heavy vibrations rattle through the ground below us and through me. A rumbling reverberates off tall oaks, a low gust of air comes. I turn and see a small ball of fire heading toward us through waves of heat rising. Mechanical screeching runs through our ears. We slide down the ditch and up into the safety of the dark trees. The black train’s horn bleats three times. Heavy boxes of red and gray swish through green cornfield and trees, over the plank Clara left, splitting it into bloody, splintered shanks. I sit on the edge of the trees, a bubble swells in my stomach. Eternity passes along with the train. The heat and momentum of the caboose carry the scent of stinking fur. I close my eyes, inhaling deep through my mouth to avoid the smell. This is the moment I need to run away. Thirty-year-old me knows this. Twelve-year-old me stays.
Most of the boys float back to the cat, to see what the train has done in addition to the mess they made. One of the boys asks in the distance, “Can we leave it here?”
Clara’s voice squeals through the air, “Not if Holly’s going to tell.” I look at the kids looking back at me. Clara’s brown eyes are squinted half-moons, surrounded by overzealous crinkles. Her smile crinkles high into her cheeks. Such a young girl shouldn’t have so many creases around her eyes, folds down her nose as she snarls at me.
“She should get rid of it!” a small voice yells from the group. The boys all nod in agreement, their eyes never leaving me. “She’ll tattle-tail!” a few boys murmur.
“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 say. It is true. Our parents never pass the tree line.
I try to tell me that I don’t need to do anything, I don’t need to prove anything to anyone but myself because those kids’ opinions mean nothing to me now, kids I moved away from years ago, kids I’m not even friending on Facebook now.
“I’ll help you,” Clara growls. She opens her hand to me. “We can bury it in the cornfield, but you have to help.” Clara always makes the plan. She always has the big ideas. Clara grabs 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 yanks hard as she leads me back to the ballpark.
No one in the stands notices us behind the fenced outfield. Clara steps behind me as we approach the new white building. I get a towel from the snack man, and we are back at the tracks.
“You gonna do it?” a boy yells as Clara and I walk down the tracks. Neither of us say anything as we find ourselves at the carcass again, already being tagged by flies. A few tiny gnats stick themselves to a staring eye. Clara lugs the larger half of the plank she used earlier to the cat.
“Put the towel down.” I fluff out the towel like we are setting up a picnic blanket, smoothing out the corners as far as the towel can stretch. Clara holds out the plank to me. “You can to do this.”
I am screaming inside my dream head, I am not going to play her game. I am screaming in my dream head, wake up, wake up, wake up. Instead, I take the plank. I stop breathing, shove it as hard as I can under the smashed cat, somehow still a single mass, it’s imploded face rolling to face me. A brown outline of a shriveled cat lingering in the rocks. There is nothing to clean that up. I shake it all loose as hard as I can, but the mess rolls lethargically down the plank like giant uncooked ground beef onto a clean towel. I fold up the corners of the towel and lift the package. I feel bones and slimy insides shift around.
I still obey, holding the towel in front of me, my arms out at full length. The bottom of the towel begins to spread out with a light shade of muddy brown. I continue to hold my breath, my chest puffed as we trip along the rocks to the opposite side of the tracks. The corn looms above us, British soldiers that won’t let us pass. The breeze swishes the stalks lightly, and they rattle a hollow warning. Clara expertly dodges and dips through the thin green shoots. The compactness of the stalks makes 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 stops when the tracks were out of sight.
Around us is nothing but thick green leaves, shoots like bamboo with fountains of brown cob hairs spouting from all sides. A hush, hardly the jeers are heard through the green. The weight of the towel and pushing with my arms through the stalks makes me shake with weakness. I drop the towel between her and I, and it makes a soft oof. Part of the towel slides away, reveals a clump of black and brown. Clara hands me the plank again and says, “Dig.”
So I stick the plank into the moist, dark ground and churned a pile of soil loose between corn stalks. Ears of corn shake above us as I roll the towel into the shallow hole. I am the only one to kick dirt over the towel. A small glimpse of dirty cloth can still be seen through the hole when I finish. I gaze at the dirt pile nestled between two rows of stalks. Clara looks up into the blue sky, lets out a short breath through her nose.
“It’s hot. We should get some water,” Clara decides. She takes my hand in hers again, a mother holding a small child. We head back the way we came. Clara doesn’t look back at the pile, but I do. I watch the pile disappear into the fortress of the corn. We emerge from the green and find the railroad is empty and silent. A burst of claps comes from the ballfield.
As we cut through the tree line, parents gather left-over snacks and blankets. A rumbling is heard in the distance that fills my hollow cavity, then a long metal screech tears through the air. No one pays attention to the oncoming train blurting its horn three times when it passes the field, as trains always do without a care or a notice to the tracks, the trees, the cornfields that contain more than nature reveals. I am the only one who looks back toward the trees waving their branches good-bye with the gust of train wind. I watch 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 hear an owl hoot quietly. Night is near.
I wake up, breathe. No longer on Main Street, USA but hundreds of miles away. I move to my window and watch the wind moving through wheat fields. I swear I can see ghost cats slinking through the stalks, moaning the same moan as passing trains. I sit and watch a sliver the moon as white as a cat eye, watching me from the sky.